The Gentile Day of Pentecost
BY NONSO UKEKA
Acts 10:43 “
“All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Last week, we read about Cornelius. He was a high-rank Roman officer—a centurion. But the Bible also tells us that he was a devout, God-fearing man together with his family. Cornelius was a man of character. He earnestly lived according to his limited faith in God. He cared very much for his friends, neighbors, and servants alike. He would regularly offer help to those who are needy and poor. He was generous and sacrificial. He was also well liked among the Jews—this is important. Because normally, Jews despised the Romans. Cornelius was also a great man of prayer. One day, while he prayed, an angel of God came to him in a vision, read Chapter 10:4-6, “Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” This was an unexpected surprise for Cornelius. For some time, Cornelius diligently sought God. He did all he could to live according to the ways of the laws that he learned from the Jews. He sought to live his life to honor God and to obey his commands as best as he could, but there was still something he was missing. He learned from the Jewish laws what righteousness looked like, but here we see God reaching out to Cornelius and inviting him to a personal relationship, through Christ Jesus. So even this wonderful and honorable man needed the grace of God in his life to truly be made righteous and holy before God. Cornelius needed to hear and accept the gospel of Christ.
For the most part, the early church had been comprised of mostly Jews—Jews from Jerusalem and Judea and subsequently from all over the Roman world. In Chapter 8 we also see how God fulfilled his promise by using Philip and the apostles to bless and welcome the Samaritans into the church. Today’s passage is one of the most foundational stories in gospel history; and a pillar of our mission-centered gospel. Remember the command of our Lord Jesus who said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:19-20a). Before being taken up into heaven, he blessed and equipped his disciples when he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Now we see how God finally begins the third phase of his world mission plan— by taking the gospel to the ends of the earth and inviting gentiles into his kingdom. First, in chapter 9 we see how God chose Saul, and set him aside in preparation of this specific task of reaching out to non-Jews. Now we see how God prepares Peter and uses him as the one to open the gates of the church to welcome the gentiles as part of the body of Christ.
[Let’s look at the previous passage in chapter 9:32-43. Peter had come a long way on his spiritual journey. More and more, he emulated the life of his Master. Like Jesus, Peter traveled around sharing the good news of the gospel wherever he went. He had learned to be humble, patient, and completely dependent on God for all his needs. He also adopted the heart of Jesus who was so full of love and compassion for the poor and the broken. Gone are the days when Peter would complain, “Send the people away Lord” (Mk. 6:36). Peter learned the blessedness of sacrificing his time and energy to care for one needy soul. In Lydda, Peter found a paralyzed man named Aeneas. He was a poor man who suffered with the limitations of his physical condition for eight years. The man had no hope over his condition. When Peter saw this man, he did not pass him by. Perhaps remembering what Jesus did when he encountered the hopeless invalid by the pool of Bethesda, Peter also remembered how great God’s love was for Aeneas as well. And so, Peter healed him, echoing the similar phrase that Jesus told the paralytic, “Get up and roll up your mat.”
While he was still in Lydda, a believer named Tabitha in the nearby region of Joppa had become gravely ill, and eventually died. Tabitha was such a great and influential woman of God. Her life touched the hearts of so many other believers. She affected the lives of many widows in that region and used her skills of sewing to bless so many other women. So, when they heard that Peter was near, they didn’t waste any time to beg Peter to come right away. They truly loved her and had faith that God was able to do something about their situation using Peter. Peter humbly went with them. Perhaps Peter remembered the love and compassion Jesus showed towards Jairus and his daughter who also fell sick and died, and Peter prayed for Tabitha. After praying, he echoed the words Jesus also said, “Tabitha, get up.” And Peter raised her back to life. There’s no doubt that God had been working mightily in Peter as he walked in the footsteps of his master Jesus. But there was still one area in his life which he had allowed to grow stagnant, and God really wanted to address this issue with him. Peter did not share in the heart of world mission that Jesus shared. Peter’s scope was incredibly narrow, and he was comfortable in it. Peter had allowed his Jewish traditions to hinder him from sharing the gospel to the gentiles, and this was absolutely unacceptable in God’s eyes. Now we will see how God trained Peter and used him to usher in a new era of grace, one in which God unites the church and the gentile believers all over the world, starting with Cornelius.]
First, God challenges Peter through a vision. Please read verses 9-16, “9About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.”
This was one of the hardest challenges Peter has had to face. We have to understand this from his cultural perspective. Today, when people are introduced to food in our Western society, the first question that pops into most people’s mind is, “how does it taste?” For us, taste and sometimes nutrition are our primary concern when it comes to food. But for the Jew, what usually is at the top of their mind is if the food is lawful. For the Jews, food is a part of their religious traditions. What you eat might draw you closer or away from God in sin. When God gave the Jews the food laws, he wanted to teach the Jews about the importance and absoluteness of holiness, but they misunderstood and took God’s command as a strict list of do’s and don’ts. A Jewish man, like Peter, would have had to spend his entire life meticulously watching what he ate, and making sure it was according to the Jewish laws and customs. Because they misunderstood God’s intentions, eating food had become burdensome to them and subsequently a hindrance for them to fulfill God’s mission for them. In the same way, their religious traditions had also become burdensome and hindered Peter from the world mission Christ had also called him to.
But God loved Peter. His challenge to Peter was not about food, but about holiness. Read verse 15, “The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’” The world and everyone in it is truly impure and unclean. We were all marred by sin from birth, and so nobody is able to claim to be perfect, be guiltless, be clean. In fact, many people believe that they can do something to make themselves clean. But there’s only one person who is able to make the unclean clean again. Jesus— the Son of the living God, who shed his blood for the guilt of our stain. The Jews thought the laws made them clean before God. And they thought that everyone else was unclean because they didn’t have the law. God wanted to help Peter. He wanted to rid Peter of anything he does to try to make himself clean and trust only on the righteousness of Christ. Only God has the power to make us clean. Just as the blood of Christ had purified Peter and the rest of the disciples, it can also purify the gentiles. Peter would have to learn to accept this truth and accept the gentiles into the church. God also helped Peter by ridding him of what was hindering his life of mission and gospel faith. At the time, even the Lord’s own disciples had yet to fully accepted God’s inmost desire— God’s Holy vision— to bring all the nations to faith in Jesus. God wants to bring them to eternal life and to the kingdom of God. It was not an easy vision to plant in their hearts, even Peter. It was nearly impossible. Three times, God had to challenge him and all three times, Peter refused. He was stubborn and fixed on his own ideas. Yet he eventually was able to overcome it and open his heart regardless of how difficult it was for him to do so. As difficult as it was for Peter to eat unclean food, his faith and his love for Jesus would help him to overcome and surrender his stubbornness to the obey God by faith. Peter would have to humbly surrender to God.
While Peter was still contemplating all these things, the time came for him to practically obey the voice of God. Look at verses 17-23a, “17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” 21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” 22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.” While Peter was still thinking about the vision, he was interrupted by visitors. This also was challenging to Peter. These were the men Cornelius sent to find and get Peter. These men were gentiles, and one of them was a soldier. Once again, Peter was confronted with a dilemma. Jews, according to their traditions then, were not allowed to fraternize or associate with Gentiles, yet here they are at his doorstep. Well, what was he supposed to do? Fortunately, God helps Peter. He gives Peter clear directions saying, So “Get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” God understood that Peter would have a hard time with this situation, so God reassures Peter saying, I am the one who sent them. I am in control. This is what helps Peter. Knowing that God is fully in control, Peter was able to take his first step of faith overcoming his religious prejudice. In doing so, Peter became once again, like his master who trusted God and faced all hardship head on. Normally, going to meet a Roman soldier at your doorway was not a good idea. But Peter was not concerned about what people thought. He only wanted to obey the God he loved. Peter was so humble, that he not only spoke to the gentiles, he also welcomed them into his home to spend the night. Peter heart was truly transforming. He was now finally able to get a clearer picture of God’s vision of the Kingdom of God, slowly but surely.
So, Peter went to see Cornelius. Let’s see verses 23b-33, “The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” 27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” 30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
The Bible tells us that the next day, Peter heads out with the men and he brings with him some of the disciples from Joppa. This was a learning opportunity for Peter and those with him. God used Peter to help shepherd and disciple these young believers to see his kingdom at work around them, just as his master had done with him. When they arrived in Caesarea, what did they find? They found a house full of gentile men and women, ready to listen to Peter. It is often said that you can tell how great a man is by the way he treats the word of God. If that’s true, then what a great man Cornelius was. Cornelius was a man who took God’s word seriously in his life. He treasured it. He valued it so much that he didn’t want to keep it for himself, but rather share it with his friends and family. He took the initiative to create an environment. Cornelius didn’t know what it was that he was going to hear that day, all he knew was that he was going to hear the word of God. There is much we can learn from his faith and attitude towards the word of God. Like Cornelius, it’s important that we also invite others to hear the word of God with us. His words are too valuable for anybody to miss it. It’s also important that we work together to create an environment of faith.
We also see how incredibly humble Cornelius was, look again at verse 25, “As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.” Cornelius truly honored and respected Peter as a servant of God. He laid aside his pride and his reputation as a leading commander in the Roman army to bow before God’s servant. Cornelius bowed to a Jew, not only in front of all his friends and family, he also bowed in front of his servants and the other Jews as well. He didn’t care about his appearance. All that was on Cornelius’ heart was his love and gratitude for God, expressing itself in humility.
This meeting must’ve really shocked Peter— to see God transform a gladiator-like man Cornelius into a gentle and humble man. This whole meeting was like the joining of East and West. Peter was also humble. Look at how he responded. Verses 26-29, “26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” 27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” Peter was careful not to allow the praises of others inflate his ego. He openly confesses to the crowd his former sinful way of thinking. This is almost Peter’s way of renouncing his former life, living by the strict code of the law, and accepting God’s grace for his life and for the life of others. Now Peter was truly ready to be used by God.
Let’s read Peter’s gospel message to Cornelius’ household. Look at verses 34-43. Peter starts saying, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (v.34-35). This was Peter’s own personal confession and testimony of faith. Peter now understands and sees clearly the glory of the Kingdom of God. Peter used to think that God had favored the Jews, and that the gospel was only for the Jews. It took him a while to see that God loves the whole world and want everybody to be able to come and join him in his Kingdom. Because of this, Peter was also able to help Cornelius and his family understand that the kingdom is also for them. He teaches them that this gospel message is a message about peace. He reminds them that Jesus went around preaching, and healing everywhere he went and many people saw the Holy Spirit at work through him and testified to all of it. Peter also testified to his death and resurrection. And through his resurrection Jesus is now made Ruler and Judge of the living and the dead. Peter was a living personal witness that Jesus is alive, and his personal witness helped Cornelius family solidify their faith. The last thing that Peter wanted Cornelius’ family to know was that all of God’s precious gifts and blessings, through Jesus Christ, were meant also for them. Read verse 43, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This required faith— nothing but faith— from anyone whether Jew or Gentile. Peter himself had accepted it. Now he helped Cornelius and his family to know and to believe that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of all lords to all people.
Let’s look at verse 44-48, “44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[c] and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. So how did Cornelius and his family respond to the gospel message? Well the Bible tells us that Peter didn’t even get to finish his sentence before the Holy Spirit came and dwelled in these believers. It means that they had already fully accepted the gospel in their hearts. By the grace of Christ alone, they all became new born Children of God. God himself was so eager to welcome them into his kingdom that he couldn’t even wait for Peter to finish his sentence. Overall, it means a new segment of the church was born, one that incorporated the whole world. God was ready to begin his world mission work. May God help us all to be ready and willing to participate in God’s world mission. May he also continue to prune and help us get rid of anything that hinders us from fulfilling our call.