Acts 10 tells a story that is very significant to any non-Jewish Christian. It describes how God made it crystal clear that we Gentiles are forgiven our sins through belief in Jesus. Today’s post reflects on that story.
Acts 10: 1 – 8
Let’s start by looking at Cornelius. He was not a Jew by birth. He was not a Jew by conversion. He was a God-fearing person. This meant that he acknowledged the Jewish God as the one, true God, and he obeyed a number of Jewish laws. The Hellenistic Jews of the first to third centuries A.D. recognised such people and welcomed them into the synagogue.
Being a God-fearer made a real difference to Cornelius’ life. He prayed regularly to God, and gave generously to those in need. Furthermore, his example was such that his whole family were God-fearing.
Nevertheless, because Cornelius was not a convert, he remained a Gentile. This meant that any Jew entering his house would become ritually unclean.
Having been introduced to Cornelius, we are told that one day, “He distinctly saw an angel of God.” Furthermore “Cornelius stared at him in fear.” Now Cornelius was a centurion. He would not have been easily frightened. There must have been something very striking about the angel to frighten him.
‘What is it, Lord?’ he asked.
The angel instructed Cornelius to “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.”
Cornelius obeyed; and it’s a good thing that he did, because over in Joppa, another part of God’s plan was being brought to fruition…
Acts 10: 9 – 23
Judaism in first century Palestine was based on a minutely detailed set of rules that governed every part of life. The idea was that because God is holy, his believers should also be holy. Holiness demanded the avoidance of impurity, and the Jewish Law specified literally hundreds of things that would make you ritually unclean. This included many animals; it included corpses, animal as well as human; and, of course, it included Gentiles. You will remember from yesterday that we noted that Cornelius, although a man who feared God, was still a Gentile.
One day, Peter the Apostle was in Joppa staying with Simon the Tanner. He had a vision in which he was confronted with an assortment of unclean creatures, and told to kill and eat. As a Jew – because at that time Christianity wasn’t a religion, it was a sect within Judaism – Peter felt bound by the purity laws.
‘Surely not, Lord,’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’
Oops! Wrong answer!
The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’
Despite this, Peter still wasn’t convinced. Three times the vision repeated the instruction to kill and eat, before it ended.
Peter sat there and wondered about the vision. What on earth could it mean? He’d observed Jewish dietary laws since he was a small child. Why did God seem to be telling him to break the rules? Was it some kind of test?
While he was sitting thinking, the Holy Spirit said to him ‘Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.’
Peter went down to them. He was beginning to understand. The men introduced themselves and told him that they had been sent by Cornelius the centurion, a Gentile, for, ‘A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.’
Peter saw how God had spoken both to Cornelius, and to him, and had sent him this puzzling vision of unclean animals. Perhaps God was telling him that Gentiles were no longer unclean?
At all events, Peter knew what he had to do next.
Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
And tomorrow he must go with the men to Caesarea.
Acts 10: 23 – 48
Even before Peter had arrived, Cornelius had been telling all his friends. He was very excited by the visit. His house was packed with people. Peter introduces himself, and has Cornelius explain why he asked him to visit. Cornelius’ account confirms the revelations that the Holy Spirit had given Peter. Peter now knows that the vision he saw was an instruction from God to treat Gentiles in exactly the same way as he treats Jews. He understands fully that Gentiles are not a source of ritual impurity.
He responds with a speech to the assembled crowd.
Peter’s speech is a précis of the beliefs of the early church. Luke wasn’t present when Peter spoke the words, so they may not be verbatim, but that doesn’t really matter; this passage is an account of how God makes it known to the early church that Gentiles are acceptable. The speech encapsulates what a Gentile should believe as a follower of Jesus. Indeed, you might call it a creed.
Peter spoke the words “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
I wonder if there was a pause, while the implications of that statement sank in?
Everyone? Gentiles too?
Everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Peter spoke these words of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit was poured out on all who heard the message. The assembly of new, Gentile followers of Jesus started to speak in tongues and praise the Lord. What an astonishing validation of Peter’s vision! How could there be any doubt that Gentiles were accepted by God just as much as followers of Judaism?
One final thought. The “creed” that Peter preaches is simple. Your sins are forgiven if you believe in Jesus of Nazareth, who healed the sick, died on the cross, and was raised to life. There are no difficult theological concepts, like the Trinity, holiness, purity, or atonement. The creed Peter spoke is as valid today as it was then.
PRAISE THE LORD!