November 21, 2006
Acts 10:1-8; 23b-48
To the Ends of the Earth
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now, if you have your Bibles turn with me to The Acts of the Apostles; and if you don't, on the back, I understand, of the bulletin this evening, a fairly lengthy reading from Acts 10. You remember that last week we were looking together at this chapter and noting how Luke tells the story by way of a sort of envelope...there are two things going on at the same time in two different cities...one in Joppa, and one north some thirty miles or so on the Mediterranean coast in Caesarea. And last week we took the center section of the story, the story of Peter in Joppa. He's at the house of a man by the name of Simon the tanner, and during his prayer time on the roof of the house he is in a trance and sees this sheet that comes down with all kinds of clean and unclean animals; and God, you remember, bids him kill and eat.
Well, at the same time there's another vision of great import and significance taking place in the city of Caesarea, thirty miles north of Joppa, and there is a man by the name of Cornelius. We’re going to pick up that part of the story in verses 1-8, and then from verse 23 down to the end of the chapter. Before we read the chapter together, let's pray.
Our Father in heaven, again we thank You from the very depths of our hearts for the gospel. And we thank You for providing us with the Scriptures that are able to make us wise unto salvation. And we ask for the help and illumination of Your Spirit. Come, Holy Spirit, and give us understanding, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Now this is God's holy and inerrant word:
“There was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort [or some versions have regiment], a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually. About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, ‘Cornelius!’ And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, ‘What is it, lord?’ And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now dispatch some men to Joppa, and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.’ When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.”
[Now these three individuals have made the journey south to Joppa, and they've arrived at Simon the tanner's house, and Peter is now, in verse 23, inviting them in.]
“So he invited them in and gave them lodging. And on the next day he got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter raised him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am just a man.’ And he talked with him. He entered, and found many people assembled. And he said to them, ‘You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me.’ Cornelius said, ‘Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, and he said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Therefore sent to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.’ Opening his mouth, Peter said:
‘I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)–you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him. We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He became visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name every one who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.’
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’ And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.”
Amen. May God add His blessing.
Well, we saw last week how significant a passage Acts 10 and the whole story is repeated again in Acts 11, because Peter will now go back to Jerusalem and he’d have to give an explanation of what's been going on, and the whole story comes out again in Acts 11. And Luke is evidently underlining for us just how significant a story this is. It's significant because it's a Rubicon. There's no turning back from this point forward. The gospel is breaking the boundaries of Judaism, breaking the boundaries not just of Samaria and Judea, but is now going to the ends of the earth, to the Gentiles. And Cornelius is a representative of the Gentiles. The Gentiles are now coming in, flocking in, to the kingdom of God. The distinction between Jew and Gentile is no more. The middle wall of partition has been broken down. There is no distinction between clean and unclean any more. God is now revealing His redemptive purpose in full glorious light. It was already there in the Old Testament. Much of what we read of here in Acts 10 can be traced back into the covenant of Abraham and the covenant with Moses, and even the covenant with David.
Well, we're at Caesarea. Caesarea is about 30, possibly 32 miles north of the coast of the Mediterranean Sea from Joppa. It's a two-day journey. At best, a day and a half. If they leave early in the morning and rest for the evening, they probably got there the afternoon of the following day. So there's been four days from the time that Cornelius first sends these three men up to Joppa, and then Peter and the three men come down again. But we haven't got that far yet.
Caesarea is a port city on the coast of the Mediterranean. It's the provincial base for the Roman Empire in Palestine. It was a military city. It was an entire regiment; the Italian regiment of soldiers are there — a cohort, which means something in the order of 480 or so soldiers. As a centurion, he would have been in charge of 80 of these soldiers. Later in the first century a centurion would, as the name might suggest, be in charge of 100 soldiers, but at this period in the first half of the first century it's more likely to have been around 80 men.
Cornelius is a soldier. He's a Roman soldier. He's probably gone up through the ranks. Only those who are well off could get the kind of promotion above the standing of a centurion. As a centurion, he would serve twenty years. Later in the first century it would be 25 years. They usually joined when they were 17, and then they were demarked when they were 37.
He's a man of some authority. He's a man who's obviously well-liked. He would be something of the order of an infantry commander, or perhaps even the Army rank of a Captain. If he was of a senior type of centurion, he might even be what we would call a Major.
There was a love/hate relationship between the Jews and the Roman authorities, and particularly Roman soldiers. Caesarea, especially, was a hotbed of discontent. Josephus tells us that the war that broke out between the Jews in Rome in AD 66 began here in Caesarea, and the entire population of Jews — somewhere in the region of 20,000 — were completely destroyed...killed.
Cornelius is a God-fearing man, a devout man. We’re told this on two occasions: in verse 2, and again in verse 22. There's some debate today as to what exactly that means. At best it means that he attended the synagogue as a Gentile. He attended the synagogue, had gone through some of the initial stages of preparation for becoming a full-blown member of the synagogue, but wasn't yet circumcised. That's probably what it means, at best. More likely a God-fearer was somebody who had an enormous respect for Judaism in terms of its moral and ethical standards, and in terms of its monotheism. He's somebody who gives alms. He's somebody who prays. He's a devout man. In verse 22 we're told that he was respected by the whole Jewish nation. But he's still a Gentile, and for Peter this is an enormously difficult thing that's about to take place.
Cornelius sees a vision. He's having his time of prayer. He sees this vision, and an angel speaks to him and tells him he must send for a man called Simon, who's staying in the house of a man called Simon the tanner, in Joppa. And he sends three men — two of his attendants and a devout soldier — and they’re sent on this journey that would take a couple of days.
Now, four days later, ten men arrive at the door: these three men that he has sent to fetch Peter, Peter himself is there, and from chapter 11 we read that the brothers who attend with Peter (there are six of them), so there are ten in all who come back up to Caesarea.
There's a welcoming party. I imagine in that four-day period what's going on in the mind of Cornelius. Who is this man Peter, as a representative of God who's coming to bring him the most important message in his life? And perhaps with all of the hype and expectation, as soon as Peter arrives apparently he falls down before him and worships him, and Peter has to tell him he's just a man like him. It's a very dramatic moment in the story.
Now, why has he come? And you notice it's all the way down to verse 31 or so, or 32, that Peter has come. He's made this journey, but he doesn't know why he's made this journey. He hasn't been told the reason why he's at the house of Cornelius, and Cornelius tells him that he's there assembled with this congregation that's before him of Cornelius's relatives and friends, and he's there to speak and preach, and teach the word of God.
And God shows no partiality. That's the first thing he says. It's clear, he says in verse 34... “Opening his mouth...I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality.” God has no favorites. The Jews are no more special than the Gentiles, despite the fact that they are in possession of the oracles of God and the covenants of God and enormous amounts of revelation from God. God shows no partiality. It's a decisive moment that the gospel is now to be proclaimed to all the world, to every tongue and people and tribe and nation; that there is no ethnic distinction as far as the gospel is concerned. And in verse 35, “In every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”
Now that's a significant verse, and it's a very difficult verse, and there are lots of different interpretations of that verse. So let's pause for a second and ask ourselves what in the world is Peter saying in verse 35: “In every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”
At the very least he's saying that there is no partiality with God. It's simply restating the fact that Jews and Gentiles are on an equal footing as far as the gospel is concerned. There's no advantage in being a Jew as opposed to being a Gentile. Jews and Gentiles come to God in precisely the same way. That's a possible interpretation of that verse.
But there are other possible interpretations, and some which are decidedly incorrect. There is an interpretation that suggests that what Peter is saying is that God saves the unevangelized on the basis of their piety - those who have never heard the gospel, those who have never heard of Jesus Christ, those who are not in possession of special revelation. “In every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” So God looks down at the unevangelized heathen in some part of the world who's never heard of Christ and never read a Bible, and never been in possession of any part of God's special revelation, and so long as he does right and so long as there's the marks of piety, God will save him.
Well, of course, that's not even remotely possible, because that flies in the face of everything that the Bible teaches. It flies in the face of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. No man is saved on the basis of his works. No man is saved on the basis of their piety. No man is saved on the basis of their religious attendance and devotion. Why does Peter go and speak to this man about the forgiveness of sins which is to be found in Jesus Christ if he could already be saved on the basis of his piety? Doesn't make any sense.
But then there's another interpretation. It's the interpretation that's sometimes given a name, and it's sometimes called the interpretation of “implicit faith”; or sometimes it's called the interpretation of “anonymous Christianity”. It's the view that says these people are saved, and they’re saved on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done. It's just that they don't recognize that. They don't realize that. They have no conscious knowledge of it, but it's still Jesus Christ that saves. Their piety is evidence of the fact that Jesus, despite their unconsciousness of it, has come into their hearts in some way. Now there are various views of that. The present pope, Benedict XVI, wrote a little treatment in the year 2000, when he was still Ratzinger and before he became pope, suggesting that those who are not Roman Catholics could be saved on that basis. Well, that's interesting to know — that you don't have to be a Roman Catholic to be saved.
But in our own circles folk like Clark Pinnock and John Saunders...Clark Pinnock has written a book called A Wideness to God's Mercy. He refers to this particular incident of Cornelius in Acts 10. He refers to Cornelius as “the pagan saint par excellence of the New Testament.” He needed to become a Christian, Pinnock says. He needed to become a Christian to receive Messianic salvation, including assurance in the Holy Spirit, but not to be saved from hell. In other words, he would still be saved; it's just that in order for him to have assurance and in order for him to have the Holy Spirit, he must now know about Jesus Christ.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, has suggested something very similar about the unevangelized, expressing some degree of agnosticism, I think, about the fate of the unevangelized; suggesting that it's unfair for those to be treated “harshly”, as he puts it, and to be consigned to hell who have never heard the gospel, never heard of Jesus Christ.
Well, it seems to me that the clear teaching of Scripture is that unless you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord that you cannot be saved. It would be the death of missions. It would be the death of evangelism. It would make no sense whatsoever for the rest of The Acts of the Apostles if it was possible to be saved despite never having heard the gospel, despite never having heard of Jesus Christ, despite never having fulfilled the Great Commission. It seems to me to be the sustained polemic of the New Testament that Jesus is the only Lord that there is, and that you must know who Jesus is and what He has done, and see your need of Him and accept Him as your Lord and Savior in order to be saved. And I think that the answer to the charge that that is unfair to those who are unevangelized is that God owes salvation to no one. On our part it should motivate us. It should keep us awake at night that there are people in the world who have not heard of Jesus Christ, that we ought to be more evangelistic, that we ought to be more concerned, that we ought to shed tears for the unevangelized. And it should drive us and motivate us to go and speak about Christ to all and sundry, and to use those opportunities that God provides in His providence to speak a word about Jesus.
Now what does Peter do when he begins to speak? And as we read the story, it's fascinating. He's not speaking now to the Jews so much in Jerusalem, who would have known, of course, great portions of the Old Testament. He's speaking to a Gentile who may — and certainly some of his friends and relatives who may know very little about the gospel. And so what does he focus on? He focuses on Jesus. The whole address, the whole sermon is about Jesus. It's about Jesus’ life; it's about Jesus’ ministry; it's about Jesus’ death on the cross; it's about Jesus’ resurrection. It's about Jesus coming in judgment at the end of the age. It's all about Jesus. It's like as though...you remember the little motto of George Whitfield on the spine of a book published by The Banner of Truth...there's always the little picture of George Whitfield, and his finger is up in the air, pointing to Christ, his Lord. And many a pulpit has a little plaque in it...the one at Montgomery in Alabama last week where I was, there was a plaque. You couldn't miss it as you walked into the pulpit. It was there...hit you right in the face: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Don't you dare come into this pulpit and not preach about Jesus!
And that's what Peter is doing here. He's preaching Jesus Christ. He's saying to Cornelius and he's saying to these Gentiles that the way of salvation and the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, and pardon with a just God, is to be found in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus only. None other name...what is it Christina Rossetti says? “None other name, none other name, none other hope in heaven or earth or sea...none beside Thee. None beside Thee.” Our only hope in life or in death is found in Jesus Christ.
And if that's what Peter says, what does he see and hear? Well, a kind of mini-Pentecost is what he sees — that the Holy Spirit comes down, and just as in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost, so now in Cornelius's house these men and women begin to speak in tongues. It's to be explained, I think, because this isn't typical of what the Holy Spirit does, not even in The Acts of the Apostles when He comes. This is a unique moment in redemptive history, when the gospel, as it were, has taken a decisive step away from Jerusalem and to the Gentiles. It's when the door of the Gentiles is suddenly opening — and that's what they will conclude back in Jerusalem in Acts 11. That is their conclusion that they will see now and realize that God has opened the door now to the Gentiles. And there's a sort of repetition of Pentecost here.
And if that's what he sees and hears, what does he do? Well, he does what Philip did with the Ethiopian eunuch, and he baptizes him and all of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. “Who can forbid it,” he says, “seeing that they too have forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ in the same way that we have?”
Now, you understand that when Peter gets back to Jerusalem, he is going to have to give an account of what he has done. There will be the conservative Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who will be uneasy, to say the least, about certain laws and rituals and ceremonies having been overlooked, or perhaps compromises coming into the spread of the gospel as it goes beyond the borders of Palestine. And next week, I suppose, we’ll be looking in Acts 11 at Peter's explanation now in Jerusalem for what he has done. But it's another remarkable story of the immense grace of God to not just Cornelius, but to his family and friends.
Somebody was praying for revival this evening, and here's an example of revival — of God the Holy Spirit coming down and all of a sudden great numbers coming to faith in Jesus Christ, and assurance in the Holy Spirit of sins forgiven. And to that extent it can be our prayer that we would see such things again in our day.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for Your word. We thank You for this moment in history when the gospel seems to have spread from Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. We thank You that we here this evening as Gentiles are part and parcel of this great redemptive outflow that began in Jerusalem. We thank You for the way of salvation that is the same today as it was in Peter's day: through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone; that we dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus' name. On Christ, the solid Rock, we stand; all other ground is sinking sand. Now grant Your blessing as we go our various ways. Watch over us; give us mercy as we journey; bless us in our homes and families; fill us with Your Spirit; give us joy in the Holy Ghost; and forgive us all of our sins. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
[Doxology sung by congregation.]
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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