“The Gospel for All Nations”
April 30, 2017
What God promised to Abraham came true for us Gentiles in Jesus.
I. The Gentile (Acts 10:1-8)
II. The Dividing Wall Broken Down (Acts 10:9-23)
III. The Gospel Preached (Acts 10:24-43)
IV. The Promises Kept (Acts 10:44-48)
Last week I shared the first time I heard someone proclaim God’s big story, John Stott at Urbana 76. I wasn’t the only one moved by those messages. Many of you have heard of the book Perspectives on World Christian Mission. Gail and Tina took that course a few years ago, a fascinating study of God’s work in the world. It turns out the first form of Perspectives was created by Ralph Winter for Urbana 76. The guy who became the co-editor of Perspectives is Steve Hawthorne, whose personal involvement came as a result of Urbana '76.
A fervent admirer of John Stott, Hawthorne actually snuck into the conference to hear some solid Bible exposition. “I had nothing against missions,” he says, “but I knew that it wasn't anything I would ever do.” It was 10:15 on the morning of December 28, 1976 when Stott took the stage. With his large, deep, British accent, Stott announced "the living God is a missionary God." "I expected good exposition," Hawthorne says, "but I didn’t expect an integrated focal point. I found there was one singular focus of God's purpose throughout all of Scripture." And what did Stott begin with? The promise to Abraham.
Not long after we started this series we saw something wonderful in Abraham’s story. God promised blessing to Abraham and his descendants, and to all the nations of the earth. I’m going to let Stott read this. “And I will read to you the first four verses from the Revised Standard Version that describe God’s call to Abraham. “The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, or famous, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth will bless themselves, or be blessed.” Here you see God made a promise to Abraham, (a composite promise, as we shall see), and an understanding of that promise from God to Abraham indispensable to an understanding of the Bible and of the Christian missionary enterprise.
These four verses are perhaps the most unifying verses of the whole Bible. It is not an exaggeration to say that the whole of the Bible is encapsulated within these four verses.” The key phrase is “through you all the nations, or families, of the earth will be blessed.” We have followed the development of God’s big idea, “you will be my people and I will be your God and dwell among you.” Though the promise of blessing the nations was repeated, the actual blessing didn’t happen for centuries, until after the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus.
We saw last week how God the Holy Spirit then came in power to be with the believers, how they began to declare Jesus in other tongues to Jews and Jewish converts gathered in Jerusalem. Still, for the first ten chapters of Acts there are only hints that Good News will ever break out to the Gentiles. Yet it is a vitally important blessing to us, because, folks, we are Gentiles. If God hadn’t kept this promise we wouldn’t be among the redeemed. So today we’re going to see that what God promised to Abraham came true for us Gentiles in Jesus.
It starts, as you’d expect, with one Gentile. And it’s a great story, so significant it’s told three times in Acts. I’m just going to read chapter 10 and let the story tell itself. Verses1-8: At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now, send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
Cornelius, a Roman Army officer in charge of three to six hundred men was a God-fearing Gentile. These were not uncommon in the Roman world Many saw the emptiness of their pagan gods, their cruelty and arbitrariness in myth, their powerlessness in practice. Some of these reached for monotheism, and the Jewish God, who called himself the one true God was immensely appealing. Cornelius, living in Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea, about 75 miles north of Jerusalem, couldn’t help coming in contact with the Jews. As a result, we’re told, he and his household feared God, prayed to him and he gave generously to the people. No doubt God was at work in this. As one commentator says “Cornelius was a noble and spiritually sensitive Roman, who seems to fit Virgil's picture of the Gentile world as one that "stretched out its hands in longing for the other shore." It was, then, to such a spiritually minded Gentile, that God first reached out his hand to advance the Christian mission.
To this Gentile, in the middle of the afternoon, an angel appeared. This is not unheard of in Scripture – an angel appeared to the pagan Balaam as well – but it is unusual, especially with intent to bless rather than judge. Cornelius is terrified and blurts out “What is it?” The angel says, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” The idea of a memorial or remembrance before God is a common Scriptural way of saying God has heard these prayers
So the angel gives this Gentile whose hands are outstretched in longing, a simple yet unexplained instruction. “Send men to Joppa and find a man called Simon Peter, who is staying with another Simon, a tanner in a house by the sea.” Joppa was about thirty miles from Caesarea. Notice that the angel could have told Cornelius the Gospel, but God chose instead to speak the words of salvation through Peter. And in almost every case of salvation since then, God the Holy Spirit has spoken through a person bringing God’s word. Cornelius responds immediately. He calls two of his servants and a soldier, tells them this remarkable story and sends them off to Joppa. Luke includes a detail that is kind of fun, that the soldier Cornelius chose was ‘devout’ or God-fearing. As implied earlier, Cornelius was not the only one in his household who was seeking something more and turning to the God of the Jews.
God initiates this world-shaking event, this breaking out of blessing to the nations by reaching out to a Gentile. But he also has to reach out to a believing Jew, and this was perhaps more difficult. Listen to the story, verses 9-23 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15The voice came to him a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. 17Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate 18and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19While Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
21Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” 22They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23So he invited them in to be his guests. The next day he rose and went with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him.
God uses a dramatic vision to inaugurate the time of welcoming the Gentiles.
Peter is up on his roof praying. He’s hungry, but before anything is brought, he sees a vision, a sheet or a tablecloth being lowered from heaven. In the sheet were all kinds of unclean animals, reptiles and birds of the air, things God had said were unclean and off limits in order to separate his people from the Gentile nations, to make them holy, which at its root means separated out. But now, and this is a key moment in God’s big story, Peter hears a voice saying “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” In other words, what was unclean and separated you from the Gentiles, God now declared to be OK. Go ahead and eat it.
Peter’s response is predictable. He says what we imagine him saying to Jesus in a similar circumstance: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” This wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles was real, centuries old, thick, unbreachable. You see it over and over in the Gospels. Every time the Pharisees think Jesus is pushing that line of ritual purity, whether by eating with tax collectors or touching lepers or eating without washing or healing on the Sabbath, every time they call him out. And his response, every time, is not to disdain these laws of separation and holiness, but to disdain the man-made applications, extensions of these laws.
So Peter has no pre-existing reason to think God will now abolish these laws and take down the separation they created. But the voice came again, saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” God has, in the vision, decided to declare all these animals clean and fit to eat, just as in the distant past he decided that they were not to be eaten in order to create the separation of his people from nations. But the purpose of the vision is not to change Peter’s diet so much as to change Peter’s thinking about that separation and about God making people clean. Therefore God repeats the conversation three times before the sheet and its animals are taken up to heaven.
Peter is sitting there perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, and in God’s timing the men who were sent by Cornelius found the house and asked at the gate Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. Peter is up here pondering and the men are down here asking for him and God the Holy Spirit breaks the deadlock, speaking directly to Peter. “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” Notice the Holy Spirit, who has broken in to dwell with his people, now speaks to Peter first person. This is one of the underlying realities that enables this new era of Gentile salvation to take hold. So Peter goes down and the men tell them the story, and Peter invites them to stay. He apparently doesn’t immediately share the good news with them, but he does, the next day, get up early to go and see Cornelius.
So, with relatively little fanfare, God has orchestrated one of the great moments in spiritual history, the moment when the ‘every nation’ promise to Abraham begins to come true, when the dividing wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles is seen to be down. I say ‘seen to be down,’ because it actually came down in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. Paul is the one who uses the wall as a metaphor, and he says “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles . . . were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” What Christ achieved on the Cross the Spirit is now working out in God’s people. Now the Gospel will be preached to the Gentiles, just as Jesus commanded.
Verses 24-43 On the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. 28He said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” 30Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing 31and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
34So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter arrives to find a crowd gathered at Cornelius’ house. When he enters Cornelius himself comes up and falls at his feet, worshipping. Peter says “Don’t do that. Stand up. I’m a man like you, not one to be worshipped.” I’ve been talking with some folks recently about icons, images of Peter and Paul and Mary and the other saints of the church. These icons are in the church and on a home altar. People kneel before the icon, kiss the icon, burn incense before the icon and pray before the icon. These churches will tell you it’s not idolatry because they are only reverencing the saint, not worshipping him or her. But the Greek word used here is the word for reverencing, and Peter forbids it. I wonder what Peter, now in heaven, thinks. Does he long to say to these people “Stand up, I’m only a man. Worship Jesus”? I suspect he does.
So Peter walks through the door of Cornelius’ house. I wonder if he paused and looked at that door and prayed about what it symbolized. In any event, when he addresses the crowd he begins with the issue of separation, the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. He says that it is against the Old Testament law for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, a Gentile. “Until now I never would have come in that door. But God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.” He’s living out this all nations ethic. Peter then asks why they sent for him, and Cornelius tells the whole story. Then he turns it back over to Peter “Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
So how will Peter respond? Last week we heard Jesus say to Peter and the others “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” In what we call the great commission, also said to Peter, Jesus said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” So here in this Gentile home Peter says “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Then he preaches the gospel of Jesus. “We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” That’s the good news, that Jesus was crucified, rose from death, appeared to witnesses and all who believe receive forgiveness of sins. This is the Gospel for all of us Gentiles. How do these Gentiles respond? Or maybe “How does God the Holy Spirit respond?”
Verses 44-48 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45The believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
When Peter called Cornelius and these others to believe and receive forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit was already at work in them, as Jesus had promised, convicting them of sin and righteousness and judgment, and bringing them to that place of repentance and faith. The Spirit didn’t wait until Peter felt he was finished before He descended in power on those becoming believers. Notice though that the outward signs of this descent were similar to those which had accompanied the coming of the Spirit to the disciples, to the Jews. Flames of fire aren’t mentioned, but the outpouring of the Spirit on each who heard the word is repeated. The believers with Peter were thus able to be amazed that ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.” Don’t miss that. This is the breakthrough, God fulfilling his promises that through Abraham’s offspring all the nations and families of the earth would be blessed.
One of the ways these Gentiles reveal the presence of the Spirit is by speaking in tongues, probably because that’s what had happened when the Spirit first came to the Jews. There is no mention of tongues in any of the salvation accounts between chapter 2 and chapter 10, and only one other in Acts, chapter 19, which was also a breakthrough moment. It’s clear to me, as to most students of Scripture through history, that tongues aren’t a necessary sign of salvation nor a necessary sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can give tongues, and sometimes does, but they are not necessary. Those among our Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers who believe that are wrong.
On the other hand, salvation is accompanied by baptism. Peter makes it clear. People who are saved should be baptized. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” This is a pattern we see throughout Acts, and which is assumed in the rest of the New Testament. Believers should be baptized. Jesus said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This is the command Peter is obeying, and when he stays with Cornelius and the others for several days he is undoubtedly obeying the part where Jesus says “teaching them to observe all I have command of you.”
This is a huge moment in God’s big story. As Stott said at Urbana “The nations are not gathered in automatically. God’s promise to bless “all the nations” is to bless them through Abraham’s seed. And you and I are Abraham’s seed. families of the earth,” he has promised to do so “through Abraham’s seed.” And if all the families of the earth are going to be blessed only if we go to them with the Gospel, then we’d better go. For that is God’s plain purpose. And I pray as I conclude that that expression “all the families of the earth” – have you got it? – “all the families of the earth,” will be written upon our hearts. It reveals that the living God of the Bible is a missionary God. Brethren, we need to be global Christians with a global vision, because our God is a global God. So may God help us to remember his four-thousand-year-old promise to Abraham that “by you and your descendants, spiritual descendants, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Hallelujah.”
We are the Gentiles to whom the Good News is sent, and we are the seed of Abraham through whom the Good News must continue to be sent. And the families of the earth are all around us, in our neighborhood, in our community, in our state, our nation and all over the world. Some, like Cornelius, are just waiting for us to break through our own barriers, as Peter did, and bring good news.