SETTING AND REVIEW
This is the final scene of Luke’s narrative about Cornelius and the Gentile Pentecost.
READ ACTS 2:14-20
Peter preaches that God will “pour out his Spirit on all people”:
- They will prophesy
- They will have dreams
- They will see visions
- God will display wonders in heaven
- God will display signs on the earth below
The result of these things is that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”.
Peter is finally understanding the full reach of the gospel that he began to preach on the Jewish Pentecost:
- God has made the gentile nations clean
- God has poured out his Holy Spirit upon them
- The Gentile believers began speaking in tongues and declaring God’s greatness
When Peter understands that Christ’s blood truly purchased the redemption of all nations, he asks his Jewish compatriots if “anyone can withhold water and prevent these people from being baptized since they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
You see, this frames the Christian theology for why Christianity branched out and included non-Jews.
Up to this point the Jewish Christians were keeping themselves ceremonially clean according to the Law of Moses. So, when Peter returned to Jerusalem his Jewish brothers and sisters criticized him for associating with the Gentiles because they were ceremonially unclean.
READ ACTS 11:1-18
Luke repeats in full his account from 10:9–48 in order to emphasize the centrality of these events to his narrative.
This narrative explains:
- How God confirms the Gentile mission
- How God has made the Gentiles clean
- How God has made both Jews and Gentiles one body in Christ
As Peter begins to answer the questions and criticisms of the Jerusalem believers – those who most likely later became known as “the circumcision party” – Peter explains that he saw the gift of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius as the same gift that God gave to the apostles at Pentecost.
This kind of outpouring was unique in history and surprised Peter, who saw the outpouring upon Cornelius’ household as fulfilling the promise that Christ gave to his disciples:
Acts 1:4–5 (CSB) — 4 While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “Which,” he said, “you have heard me speak about; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.”
Peter’s Defense: v. 4-17
Peter’s defense is both experiential and theological.
The Nature of Peter’s Defense: v. 4
“Peter explains step-by-step”: Peter didn’t consider himself above questioning, nor did he demand they submit to his apostolic authority. Instead, Peter gives a very clear explanation pointing to what God was doing to fulfill the promises of Christ.
There’s a lesson for us in this:
- Peter did not argue with them about circumcision
- Peter’s aim was to discern what God was doing
We would do well to avoid quarrels and make it our ambition to discern the will of God:
Romans 12:2 (CSB) — 2 Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
2 Timothy 2:23–25 (CSB) — 23 But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, because you know that they breed quarrels. 24 The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, 25 instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.
Rather than stooping to engage in foolish and ignorant disputes with those who were criticizing him, Peter laid out what God had accomplished among the Gentiles in an orderly manner and let God’s will stand for itself.
What God Has Cleansed: v. 9, 18
This narrative began with Peter’s vision of a carpet filled with all kinds of animals – both clean and unclean – being lowered down to the four corners of the world:
Acts 10:11 (CSB) — 11 He saw heaven opened and an object that resembled a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners to the earth.
We remember that Peter was greatly perplexed about the meaning of this vision and did not understand what God was talking about.
The symbology of this carpet coming down from heaven is central to the meaning of this vision as we see this kind of imagery used in throughout the New Testament a number of times:
John 1:29–34 (CSB) — 29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I told you about: ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me, because he existed before me.’ 31 I didn’t know him, but I came baptizing with water so he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and he rested on him. 33 I didn’t know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The one you see the Spirit descending and resting on—he is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.”
Revelation 21:1–4 (CSB) — 1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.
Implicit in the imagery of “descending down out of heaven from God” is the reality of God coming down to seek and save the lost.
It is the central principle of the gospel:
- We have all gone astray and become corrupt (Ps. 14:3)
- We have all suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18)
- We have all become evil in our thinking (Eph. 4:17)
- We have all become unfeeling in our evil ways (Eph. 4:19)
And in the midst of this state of darkness God descended, took on human likeness, and suffered the cross so that in his resurrection “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations” (Lk. 24:47).
This imagery invokes the gospel hope that God is never far away from us because he has come down to seek and save the lost.
“What God has made clean”: implicit in this statement is the question “how did God make them clean?”
In answering this question, we want to be careful of lazy theology that is technically “right”, but which strips the message of its flavor.
So, let’s look at how Peter answers this implicit question:
Acts 11:9 (CSB) — 9 But a voice answered from heaven a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call impure.’
Acts 11:18 (CSB) — 18 When they heard this they became silent. And they glorified God, saying, “So then, God has given repentance resulting in life even to the Gentiles.”
REFERENCE: Ephesians 1:7 (CSB) — 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace
The interpretation of the vision is given in the conclusion to the Cornelius narrative: “So then, God has given repentance resulting in life even to the Gentiles.”
God has cleansed the Gentiles in Christ by repentance.
The centrality of “repentance” in the gospel as the sovereign decree of God is unequivocal:
Luke 24:46–47 (CSB) — 46 He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47 and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Acts 3:19–20 (CSB) — 19 Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Jesus, who has been appointed for you as the Messiah.
Acts 3:26 (CSB) — 26 God raised up his servant and sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways.”
Acts 5:31–32 (CSB) — 31 God exalted this man to his right hand as ruler and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Time forbids that I illustrate this point any further.
God first blessed the Jewish disciples in Christ by turning them from their evil ways, and then blessed even the gentiles by granting them repentance also.
The blessings of repentance are many:
- The forgiveness of sins (Lk. 24:47)
- The wrath of God is satisfied in Christ alone (Rom. 5:9)
- We are clothed with Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27)
- God’s love is poured out in our heart through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5)
- We receive fellowship with God and one another in the light (1 Jn 1:5, 9)
- We even receive the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord (2 Thess. 2:14)
This narrative challenges our understanding of the gospel and corrects errors that would present the grace of God in such a way as to allow those who call on the name of Christ to continue walking in their former ways.
The Christian life is one that is blessed in repentance. Therefore:
Matthew 5:3–5 (CSB) — 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth.
The Founding Principle of Unity: v. 16-17
“God gave them the same gift”: the founding principle of Christian unity is that God shows no favoritism.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit confirmed the Gentile mission in an unmistakable way:
Acts 11:16–17 (CSB) — 16 I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If, then, God gave them the same gift that he also gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, how could I possibly hinder God?”
This shows that when Jesus told the disciples that he would baptize them with the Holy Spirit, they not only interpreted his promise on an individualistic level – i.e. they expected this to be personally fulfilled in themselves – but also on a corporate level.
They interpreted Christ’s promise in light of their Jewish identity:
- “Go into all nations and make disciples” = make Jewish proselytes
- “I will pour out my Spirit upon all people” = all types of Jewish people
They are learning a lesson that is very difficult for them to understand – one which I think is very difficult for us to understand as well:
Acts 10:34–35 (CSB) — 34 Peter began to speak: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Romans 10:11–12 (CSB) — 11 For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame, 12 since there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him.
There is an aspect of repentance happening in Peter and the Jewish believers that is necessary for them to be cleansed of their hostility towards the Gentile believers so that unity can exist among all who call upon Christ’s name.
By sending the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles in the same manner that he came upon the Jewish believers, God signaled that he had removed the barriers of separation between the Gentiles and the Jews and intended to make from them one body:
Ephesians 2:11–22 (CSB) — 11 So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh—called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” which is done in the flesh by human hands. 12 At that time you were without Christ, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In his flesh, 15 he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. 16 He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death. 17 He came and proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.