Acts 11:1–18

Eternal Life Even to Gentiles

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

April 24, 2016

 

Introduction

This morning we’re going to move away from Jesus’ teaching to the impact that his life and teaching had upon his followers. In Acts 11 the apostle Peter provides a summary of how he personally was eyewitness to the Holy Spirit falling upon the Gentiles even as he had fallen upon the Jewish believers at Pentecost—an event we’re going to be celebrating in a few weeks on Pentecost Sunday. And this morning’s passage is an important reminder to us of just how difficult this giving of the Spirit was for Jewish believers to comprehend. Though Jewish converts to Christ were convinced that Jesus was indeed the Messiah and therefore followed him, many didn’t understand that the salvation Christ provided was intended for all who placed their faith in him and not only for those who were from God’s chosen nation of Israel. Because we’re so accustomed to the notion that of course the salvation God provides includes all people of all nations, it’s easy for us to forget that this way of thinking wasn’t a given for Jews or any ancient peoples, not even the authors of the Gospels and other New Testament books. Though they were inspired authors, that is, men to whom God disclosed his teaching and will, they were also creatures of their own cultures who had to be taught which aspects of their culture were in keeping with God’s ways—and which were not.

It’s important to remember that in the ancient world each nation tended to have its own god or gods. Not understanding this can, and has, led people to wrong conclusions about the reasoning behind some Old Testament teachings. So, for instance, in the Old Testament the reason that marrying people from other nations was forbidden wasn’t because inter-racial marriage was looked down upon but because for an Israelite to marry someone from another nation could cause that individual to stop worshipping the one true, God who created from Abraham a nation for himself, and instead worship the false god or gods of another nation. So too, in New Testament times, Paul’s teaching on not being unequally yoked,[1] or of a believer not marrying an unbeliever, has the same rationale in mind. Given the intimacy shared between a husband and wife, although for a believer to marry an unbeliever could result in the believer bringing the unbeliever to faith it could equally draw away a Christ-follower to follow a false god. So-called “missionary” dating or marrying is never upheld or promoted in Scripture.

Now in terms of God’s original plan of salvation including Gentiles, or non-Jews, again though we may take this for granted, this wasn’t initially evident even to Jesus’ apostles who, at the outset, were Israelites ethnically and Jewish religiously. In other words it’s easy for us to forget the Jewish context into which Jesus, who himself was a Jew from the line of David, came. The only “Scripture” he and those around him would have held to were the Hebrew Scriptures or our Old Testament. And, as already suggested, God’s nation, Israel, had cause to view itself as special, as the apple of God’s eye, for he created the nation of Israel for himself from one man, Abraham, to whom God gave his promise that through him he would make a nation for himself and, one day, bless all the nations of the earth.[2] But, for whatever reason, the latter part of God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t always front and center in the Jewish mind. Though it was well understood that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from whom God did indeed make a great nation, nonetheless that one day all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him was often overlooked or misconceived.

Knowing this backdrop is important because it helps us appreciate that when our passage begins with the statement, “1The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God,” this is a huge deal. The inclusion of Gentiles into the Jewish family tree is not what most Jewish leaders and converts to Christianity understood the Scriptures to be teaching. Again, not even Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples and friends, understood this. Part of what the book of Acts as a whole recounts for us is not only how the Holy Spirit fell upon Jewish believers from every nation at the Jewish festival of Pentecost[3] but also how God gave his Holy Spirit to Samaritans,[4] or allegedly “worldly” Jews, and, finally, how God gave his Holy Spirit even to Gentile believers, our focus this morning. And each of the post-Pentecost bestowals of the Holy Spirit became a cause of friction for the early church, challenging common—and often incorrect—conceptions of God’s plan of salvation.

This morning’s passage focuses specifically on the inclusion of Gentiles into this plan. What has just happened is that in Acts 10 God has given two separate visions, one to a Gentile, Cornelius; the other to a Jewish convert to Christ, the apostle Peter. Cornelius is, a Roman centurion who, though not a believer, was a god-fearer. And he is given a vision by God in which he is told to go and fetch Peter. Peter, too, is given a vision, three times, about what is or is not unclean.[5] At the end of this vision, the Spirit tells him to go with the three men who have come for him, the very men sent to Peter by Cornelius. So what Peter is recounting in Acts 11 are highlights of what he experienced prior to and following his visit to Cornelius’ house.

Again, our passage begins with the seemingly innocuous statement that both the apostles and believers throughout Judea had heard that the Gentiles, too, had received the word of God. But in verses 2–3, we immediately see that this isn’t just a point of information but is, in fact, a problem.So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’” Again, why would they criticize Peter? Shouldn’t we all be going to the homes of any and all who don’t know Jesus to share the good news of the salvation he brings? Well, this isn’t yet the perspective of some of these earliest converts to Christ. Peter is in trouble here.

“Circumcised believers” is sometimes translated as the “circumcised party” and this better indicates that this was a sub-group among Jews who had come to a saving faith in Christ. And their problem, or misunderstanding, was that because in Old Testament times male followers of God were required to be circumcised as a sign that they belonged to God or that they were members of God’s covenant community,[6] when these Jewish believers converted to Christianity, they continued to believe that circumcision was a necessary first step for all male Christ-followers. Further, later developments within Jewish traditionnot Old Testament law—taught that for a Jewish believer to eat with a Gentile would result in ceremonial uncleanness. So we can appreciate how it is that some of the Jewish leaders who believed in the truth of God’s word and sought to uphold it, would be upset that Peter had gone up to Jerusalem and even broken bread, had fellowship, with uncircumcised men. And as we’re going to see Peter himself had balked at the thought of this—hence, the vision God had to give him three times to convince and reassure him that current ways of understanding clean and unclean were not in keeping with God’s teaching. Let’s turn to that vision as Peter recounts it.

Beginning in verse 4 we read that as he was praying in the city of Joppa, Peter saw a vision while in a trance. In this vision he saw “something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where [he] was” (5). As Peter looked into this sheet, he saw “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds” (6). What is more, he heard a voice telling him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat” (7). But Peter refused. Four-footed animals, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds were all unclean animals and Peter, as a conscientious Jew, would never have eaten these—which is precisely what he answers back to God: “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth” (8). However, the voice spoke to Peter a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (9). And then the voice reiterates this yet a third time after which the vision of the sheet and animals “was all pulled up to heaven again” (10).

Now Peter doesn’t quite know what to make of all of this at first but as soon as the vision ended, we’re told in verse 11 that “three men who had been sent to [him] from Caesarea stopped at the house where [he] was staying.” And then the Spirit told Peter to “have no hesitation about going with them.” And, wisely, Peter didn’t go to Cornelius’ house alone. He took with him six brothers, or Jewish converts to Christ, who went along with him to Cornelius’ home (12). These believers no doubt shared Peter’s reservations about going to the house of this Gentile. And these believers will also serve as witnesses to the fact that the events Peter relates did indeed take place.

When they entered Cornelius’ house—and Acts 10:24 states that “Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends” (24). In other words, there was quite a gathering of Gentiles there—Cornelius told them about his vision, “13how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’” And, to Peter’s credit, even though he found himself in the presence of what, to him, was an unclean Gentile, nonetheless upon hearing Cornelius’ testimony, Peter shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all those who were gathered. Though in Acts 11, Peter merely summarizes what took place, listen to the longer version of what Peter actually said as recorded in Acts 10. I’ll begin at the point after which Cornelius has shared his vision with him:

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

So Peter is true to the message Jesus himself had called him to share. He shares with Cornelius and his household how God—in Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah—fulfilled prophecies foretold in the Jewish Scriptures. But again what is new even to Peter, what is a revelation to him, is that the command to preach God’s good news of forgiveness through Christ is not only for the Jews but for all people. And, wonder of wonders, after Peter shares this brief Gospel summary about the risen Christ who is judge of both the living and the dead and is the means of forgiveness of sins through his name “the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.” Now “the beginning” Peter is referring to here is the one recorded in Acts 2 which, again, tells of the Jewish celebration of the Pentecost festival during which the Holy Spirit was first given to Jews from all nations.

I found a few time lines that indicated that approximately seven years have passed from the time that the Holy Spirit was given to the Jews at the time of Pentecost to this visit by Peter to Cornelius.[7]

That’s seven years during which time Peter and other Jewish converts to Christ were preaching that Jesus was the Christ to their fellow Jews.

That’ seven years before God sends Peter to Cornelius, making clear that the God who has made all people in his image desires all people to come to a saving faith and knowledge of him through his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of his Holy Spirit.

That’s seven years before Peter and other Jewish converts to Christ realize that God desires them to preach even to the Gentiles.

Again listen to this more complete account from Acts 10 telling of the Holy Spirit’s falling upon these Gentiles:

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 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.

Peter and the six brothers he brought with him to Cornelius’ home had never thought that God could love the Gentiles as much as he loved the Jewish people and nation he had created for himself. They thought that their call was restricted to persuading fellow Jews about the truth that Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, was the Christ, was the one Savior, Shepherd, and King promised by God in Scripture for their salvation. Yet here, seven years after they had experienced the giving of Christ’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were now eyewitnesses to God’s giving the very same Spirit to these Gentiles gathered at Cornelius’ home. And these Gentiles not only received the Holy Spirit but even began to speak in tongues and praise God just as had occurred at the Pentecost celebration when the Holy Spirit was first poured out on God’s people.

Peter, commenting on this giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, tells the leaders at the Jerusalem church, as stated in verse 16, “Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”[8] Jesus made this statement just before his ascension to heaven as recorded in the first chapter of Acts. And Peter now interprets the spread of the Gospel—and the conversion of not only Jews but even non-Jews—by means of Jesus’ very words. Peter is coming to understand just how expansive God’s plan of salvation really is as he concludes in verse 17, “So if God gave [these Gentiles] the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” Peter has come to a deeper appreciation of the vision God gave him three times, namely that the ceremonial aspects of ritual uncleanness are not what is required for those who come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus, but only believing that he is the Christ and following him are what is required.[9]

Peter’s testimony makes clear that it wasn’t necessary for Gentile converts to Christ to first convert to Judaism. Again, the ceremonial aspects of Jewish belief, practices like circumcision, were not what made a believer a follower of God. Circumcision as a sign of being part of God’s covenant people comes to be replaced by baptism which signifies that all who come to Christ and belong to Christ must die to their old nature and rise to their new nature.[10]

What is beautiful in this morning’s passage isn’t just its teaching about how wide and deep God’s love for all his people is. But what is beautiful as well is that when the Jewish leaders—who had criticized Peter for going to the house of an uncircumcised Gentile and even eating with him—hear Peter’s testimony “they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” Jesus’ disciples are beginning to learn, and experience, and live out what they had seen Jesus himself do and teach. Jesus himself hung out with sinners and those who were unclean. And, even as Peter did at Cornelius’ home, Jesus didn’t just spend time with sinners but also ate with them.

Brother and sisters, our passage this morning should cause us to thank God that from the beginning we—who were not part of his original chosen nation of Israel—were nonetheless part of his chosen people.

Our passage this morning should cause us to thank God as well for enabling our eyes, by his Holy Spirit, to see the truth of who Jesus is—our Savior—our Lord—our brother—our friend.

Our passage should remind us further to thank God in Christ for sealing us with and giving us his Holy Spirit through whom we can know and love our heavenly Father not only during our earthly lives but forever.

Our passage this morning should also create in us a desire to share the awesome good news of God’s eternal love in Christ with all those we know, as an encouragement to other believers, other family members, and with the hope that those who don’t yet know him might come to know his wonderful and wondrous love.

Let us pray.

 

[1] 2 Corinthians 6:14: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

[2] Genesis 12:1–3: 1The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

[3] Acts 2.

[4] Acts 8.

[5] See Leviticus 11 for list of clean/unclean.

[6] Genesis 17: Circumcision was one of the first requirements by God to mark the special nation he was creating for himself. In Genesis 17, almost twenty-five years after God chooses Abraham and promises to make a nation of him, as God begins to bring to fruition his promise just before the birth of Abram’s son Isaac when Abraham is ninety-nine years old, God makes a covenant with Abram in which he promises to make him a father of many nations. And circumcision is the sign of God’s covenant. Listen to these words from Genesis 17:9–14: Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

 

[7] AD 30 is the Acts 2 giving of the Spirit at Pentecost; AD 37 is the giving of the Spirit to Cornelius as recorded in Acts 10 and 11.

[8] Jesus says this to his disciples just before ascending to heaven. Acts 1:4–5: On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” John the Baptist says the same in Matthew 3:11: 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

[9] This was part of Jesus’ teaching, e.g. Mark 7:14–19: 14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16] 17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

[10] Colossians 2:9–12:For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh[b] was put off when you were circumcised by[c] Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

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