Tonight we continue our studies in the Acts of the Apostles from where we left off last year in this period after Easter. The early Christians taught that Jesus Christ is …
the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [him] (John 14.6).
But they taught this among many religions and philosophies, like today. For then, as for today, the only important question was, “Are these exclusive claims for Jesus Christ true?” So the apostles answered, “Yes! Their truth is demonstrated by the message of Easter.” In his defence, when Peter was arrested by the religious authorities, he said this (Acts 4.10 and 12):
know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed … Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
With regard to the book of Acts itself, however, the main concern of Luke (the author) is not to analyse the many contemporary religions and philosophies. It is more practical. It is to describe how the gospel left parochial Palestine and the culture of the Jews and became truly global. In Acts 1.7 Jesus’ commission to his disciples was this:
It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.
Jesus is saying, “evangelise world-wide.” And “don’t waste your time on abstruse questions about the end of the world and the second coming” - or, as we could add - some abstruse questions about predestination, or the ultimate state of people who have never heard the gospel, or what would you have seen at, or when would you have seen, the beginning of the world, and so on. Deuteronomy 29.29 says there are …
secret things [plural – that] belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law
Our job, therefore, is not to waste time on abstruse questions about “times or dates”, but to obey God’s word and will. And Jesus’ clear will for his disciples is to witness to him not only in Jerusalem and in all Judea (the territory of the Jews), but in Samaria and [then] to the ends of the earth. He wants them (and us) to go global.
Tonight we are looking at the conversion of Cornelius. This was one tiny incident but in reality a huge landmark in Christ’s global mission. It signalled the gospel’s advance from its strictly Jewish beginnings to its becoming a world-wide faith. It was a truly momentous event in world history. So much by way of introduction
Our title tonight is A Message for All and our passage is Acts 11.1-18. And my headings are first, A MESSAGE FOR ALL, secondly, TWO CAUTIONS, thirdly, TWO SPECIFIC MESSAGES, and, fourthly, PRACTICAL REALITIES
First, A MESSAGE FOR ALL
Chapter 10, the previous chapter and by way of context, is all about the conversion of the non-Jewish Roman Centurion named Cornelius. We learn in that chapter that he was a good man who had an angelic vision in his home in Caesarea. We also learn there that Peter, too, had a remarkable vision – in fact a series of three visions. And, to cut a long chapter short, the result was that Peter, a Jew, soon found himself in the house of Cornelius, a non-Jewish Roman. But that was where good Jews were supposed not to go – into non-Jewish houses. So here in chapter 11 we read in verses 2-3:
2when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the [Jewish] circumcised believers criticised him 3and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’
Then in verse 4 we read:
Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened.
And in verses 5-10 Peter tells about his visions. Then in verses 11-12 Peter tells how three men had come from Cornelius to invite him back to Cornelius’ house. He next tells how he learnt, when in Cornelius house, about Cornelius’ own vision and how Cornelius was commanded (this is 11.13-14) to…
13… send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.
Notice what the Roman Cornelius, a non- Jew, is promised. He is promised that Peter will bring him “a message” through which he and all his “household will be saved”. That is so important. For at the heart of the global expansion of the Christian faith is a message. But what is that message? Well, it’s summarized in the previous chapter, chapter 10.36-42 - just look back to that now - Acts 10 verse 36. It was …
36… the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all [and ‘Lord’ meaning divine Lord]. 37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached - 38how 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. 39We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He 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 [this was a real resurrection - Christ was not less but more than physical].
Peter was preaching about the forgiveness of past sins through Christ’s death on the Cross. And such forgiveness has consequences not only for the present in our relationship with God but also for the future and all eternity. Peter says, one day there will be a judgment. And Cornelius needs to know about that judgment, good though he is. But the good news is this (verses 42-43):
42He [the risen Jesus] 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. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
And that is the message for all – Jew and non-Jew. Is there anyone here tonight who has never yet come to terms with this message – that “everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins”? Why not face the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus and the fact that it validates and proves the truth of all these claims about Christ - and trust him?
Well, so much for the message.
Secondly, TWO CAUTIONS
The first caution is this. Yes, it is absolutely vital that this message is preached and taught to everyone all over the world. However, the Apostles were quite clear. More was needed than a mere message. Listen to what Peter had said earlier in Acts 5.32:
We [the Apostles] are witnesses of these things [Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension], and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.
What brings men and women to Jesus Christ is the work of God himself and, particularly, of God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit needs to soften hard hearts, open blind spiritual eyes and bring spiritually dead people to life. They are then spiritually born again. Yes, he uses the text of the Bible, preaching in pulpits and people talking to their friends (and Parish Visiting). But there is nothing automatic about the Bible, preaching or people talking. That is why as well as preparing what to say, you must also pray for the Holy Spirit’s working. Jesus said:
how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11.13)
So you don’t only need to be faithful to the teaching of the Apostles in what you say. That is non-negotiable. But you also need to be praying for the Holy Spirit to be working in people’s lives (many Christians do not seem to believe that - if attendance at many prayer meetings is anything to go by). So why not start to pray for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of your friends and in this city and region and in this country at Election time, if you don’t already? It is amazing what happens when you do pray. Archbishop William Temple famously said:
when I pray coincidences happen; when I cease to pray coincidences cease.
It was the Holy Spirit’s working in the household of Cornelius that finally convinced Peter that God was doing a new thing among these non-Jews or Gentiles. Look at verses 15-17 of chapter 11:
15As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.' 17So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?
So much for the first caution. Don’t omit to pray for the Holy Spirit to work as you preach or witness to Christ.
The second caution is this. When you realise the importance of the Holy Spirit working, don’t then have another misunderstanding. For Luke seems to be saying that what happened in Cornelius’ house was not the Holy Spirit’s normal way of working. Cornelius’ conversion came some time after the Day of Pentecost. What you have here, we are told, is an event that paralleled the Apostles’ experience on that Day of Pentecost.
But if the Holy Spirit’s coming to people on most occasions since Pentecost had all, or mostly, been like this occasion in Cornelius’ house, why would it have reminded Peter of Pentecost? Peter says in verse 15, “the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come us at the beginning.” The implication seems to be that what is happening here is like a unique Gentile Pentecost. It repeats the Jewish Pentecost of Acts 2. It was such a significant occasion that, in his providence, God marked it in a very special way.
Yes, being a Christian is, as Jesus said, to be “baptised with the Holy Spirit” (verse 16). Or, as Jesus told Nicodemus on one occasion, it is to be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3.5). And no-one, says Paul, can say, “Jesus is Lord [the basic Christian confession, and mean it] except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12.3). The Holy Spirit, therefore, works in the life of every true believer.
But do not think every true believer has to have the same experience as Cornelius and his household. There is not just one way the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives. Jesus also said to Nicodemus,
The wind [the same word as ‘spirit’] blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3.8).
So, two cautions: the message for all is the basic gospel truth about Jesus – who he is, what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do. But do not think that that message is like some mantra. No pray for God’s Holy Spirit to work as the gospel is shared. But then do not think there is just one way the Holy Spirit will be working in people’s lives.
Now for our third heading, TWO SPECIFIC MESSAGES
One is for Jews and one for non-Jews or Gentiles.
The message for those early Jewish believers is clear. It is this: “You don’t have to be a Jew to be saved. You don’t have to be circumcised and keep all the ritual law and traditions of Judaism to be saved and right with God. It is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ that counts.”
Peter discovered that God accepted Cornelius without his having to be circumcised and keep all the Jewish food laws. Through his vision God had showed that to Peter. This was, indeed, an epoch making moment.
The message for non-Jews or Gentiles – and so the adherents of other religions and philosophies - is also clear and it is this: “However good and moral you may be, you still need the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Luke in 10.2 describes Cornelius as a “devout” and “God-fearing man”, who “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly”. But for all his morality, Cornelius still needed to hear the gospel, as that angelic message made clear. For he was told to hear Peter who “will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.”
People of other faiths and none need the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. This is where there is some confusion. People do not keep in mind two distinctions. The first is between what theologians helpfully call God’s “general” and “special” revelation. The second is between God’s “common” and “saving” grace.
General revelation is what God reveals of himself by creation, in nature and through the human conscience and to everyone. Special revelation, on the other hand, is God’s revelation in Christ and through the prophets and Apostles - that is revelation only in the Bible. Then common grace includes all the blessings of this life and it, too, is potentially for everyone. The sun rises, says Jesus, “on the evil and the good”, and rain is sent “on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mat 5.45). Saving grace, on the other hand, brings salvation and redemption through Jesus Christ alone.
All that is why, of course, there is what is good and true in people of non-Christian faiths and philosophies through general revelation and common grace (as well as, like in all of us, what is bad). But saving grace comes only though faith in Jesus Christ - God’s unique and final revelation. That is why we must evangelise the good and the bad. No one is good enough not to need saving, or too bad to be saved.
So fourthly and finally, PRACTICAL REALITIES
What does all this teach us about church life today? Three realities.
The first is that any great new work of God will be opposed. Look again at verse 1-2:
1The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him.
The Gentiles had received the word of God. So what happens? There’s criticism. If ever you are in that sort of situation, do play it cool. Peter did. You may be tempted to react “hotly”. But that is not the Christian way. And don’t always argue. Stick to rehearsing facts - if you can. That’s what Peter did. Often critics are people who know only a fraction of the facts. But they think they know more than they know. So the first reality is of opposition for any great new work of God.
The second reality is that often new ventures and religious proposals that relate to fundamental issues of the faith are quite wrong and should be criticised. Think of all the heretical movements in the history of the Church and the current homosexualizing of the church. Peter must have realised that what he was asked to do had enormous implications. So he wanted to make quite sure he was doing the right thing. And he had multiple confirmations.
There was the vision occurring three times. There was the amazing coincidence of Cornelius’ men arriving at that critical point - verse 11 “right then …” (as the visions ended). And there was the prompting, somehow, by the Holy Spirit to go to Cornelius (verse 12). So on sufficient evidence Peter goes. He was no doubt feeling terrified. When you take a stand that other people you know will oppose, including your former friends, it is never easy. Peter wisely took witnesses, verse 12, “these six brothers”. So be sure any radical new work for God is right.
And the third reality is this. Full confirmation of the rightness of what you are doing often only comes after or during your obedience - verse 15: “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them”.
So, … right innovations for the Lord will be opposed. But make sure they are right. And remember, final confirmation requires initial obedience.
I must conclude
All this ended happily, not ever after (as we shall later be learning in chapter 15), but for the time being. Look at verse 18:
When they heard this, they [the critics] had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.’