Tonight in our studies in the book of Acts we reach one of the high points in this remarkable book. Luke, the author, in this book is explaining to Theophilus, probably his patron, how Jesus Christ, Jew though he was, is not just for the Jews. Rather he is for the whole wider world, east and west, and for all sorts of people – from the crowds in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, to top people like the Ethiopian Chancellor of the Exchequer we have already learnt about in chapter 8 and to middle class people like the Roman army officer Cornelius in our chapter for this evening, chapter 10.
So our study tonight is called: THE GOSPEL FOR ALL.
And my headings tonight are two simple questions: first, HOW DOES THE GOSPEL GET OUT TO THE WIDER WORLD? and, secondly, WHAT IS THE GOSPEL FOR THE WIDER WORLD?
First, then, HOW DOES THE GOSPEL GET OUT TO THE WIDER WORLD?
In chapter 1 verse 8 you read that the risen Jesus said to his disciples:
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.
In previous chapters we have learnt how the gospel has gone from Jerusalem to “all Judea and Samaria”. And now in chapter 10 we learn how Peter is God’s agent for turning Christianity from being a minor Jewish sect to being a great and truly world religion that would go “to the ends of the earth”. So this is a pivotal point in world history. But what was needed? Answer, five things.
First, Peter needed to get rid of his prejudices and have his eyes –his spiritual eyes – opened. At turning points in history you need people to open their eyes to reality.
You needed a Gorbachev to see the sickening corruption of Stalinism in Soviet Russia to bring an end to that wicked regime literally 20 years ago in 1989. You needed a Winston Churchill to see the stupidity of trying to appease Hitler as Chamberlain had done and to bring an end to another wicked regime. We think about that when we remember D-Day.
How today we need world-leaders (and ordinary people) to open their eyes to see a 21st century folly. This is the folly of thinking all religions and all philosophies are either equally true or equally false. People must start asking, “What is true?” The Gospel of Jesus Christ claims that he alone is true and he is for all.
Nearly 2000 years ago Peter had a version of this problem and needed to have his eyes opened. In his day there was an apartheid going on not only between the Jews and the half-Jewish Samaritans – and we have seen how that was overcome in chapter 8. There was also a much more serious apartheid between Jews and all non-Jews (or Gentiles as they are called). And Peter for all his protestations after the Resurrection of his love for Jesus by the sea of Galilee, was as bigoted and prejudiced as the rest when it came to his treatment of Gentiles.
He and other Jews failed to see how the Old Testament had already taught that the Israelites were chosen as special people but to be a light to other nations. They were not to sit back and just thank God for being special! They were to be going out as witnesses “to the ends of the earth”. But God now had to force the pace.
Last week we learnt how Peter had an amazing vision through which God made it crystal clear that the people of God were to be inclusive of Gentiles. And this vision coincided, miraculously, with some visitors from the non-Jewish Cornelius, the Roman army officer, who wanted Peter to go and stay with him for a day or two – something Peter previously would have found quite shocking. But following his vision, as we read in the opening verses of our passage tonight, verses 23b -24:
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.
So first Peter needed to have his spiritual eyes opened.
Secondly, he needed to be willing to face conflict. He would have known that other Jews would now be attacking him for staying like this with despised and (as they thought) unclean Gentiles. And conflict soon came. But that is always the way. If you seek to obey God, you too will soon be attacked and opposed. Thirdly, Peter needed God’s grace. He needed God supernaturally to protect him and to make everything clear and relatively easy. God made things clear by these amazing coincidences with Cornelius. Then for Peter everything fitted together like a jigsaw.
But, fourthly, and obviously, what was necessary for this world-wide mission, was for God to be working also in the life of Cornelius. And he was. As we saw last week, he was no longer pagan but, chapter 10 verse 2, says he was “devout and God fearing”. And “he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” And people recognized him as “a righteous and God-fearing man.” He too was given a vision in which he saw an angel (or messenger) of God (chapter 10 verse 3) telling him to send v5:
to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.
So God was working in Cornelius’ life and bringing him to spiritual life. And he was doing this before he came to a personal faith in Jesus Christ. This is the mystery of God’s divine sovereignty in bringing people to new birth. But at the same time we have our human freedom and responsibility in exercising faith. Both have to be taught. This truth is expressed by Paul in Ephesians 2 verses 4 and 6:
because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions … For it is by grace you have been saved, though faith.
All this was so true of Cornelius. I suspect there are some people here tonight in whom God is similarly working. Perhaps you are sick of much in the multi-faith or secular decadent world of today. Cornelius was probably sick of much in the pagan Roman world. So you are thinking about God. You are asking, “is he there?” Is Christ the divine Son? Perhaps you are even beginning to pray and read the Bible. Well, this is how God often works in peoples’ lives as he brings them to faith.
But, fifthly, what was absolutely vital for this Gentile mission to begin was for Cornelius not only to be attracted to moral theism. He also needed to hear a rational presentation of the truth about God and the good news about Jesus – as verse 36 puts it:
the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.
So that brings us to our …
second heading and question, WHAT IS THE GOSPEL FOR THE WIDER WORLD?
Well, you have here in chapter 10 a wonderful summary of it in Peter’s address to these Gentiles.
He makes it clear that the Gospel is first about God. It is not about you and your hurts and hang-ups and how they can be healed. Yes, that is a con sequence of the Gospel. But the good news starts with God. You see, everybody believes someone or something is ultimate. The question is what is he (or it), like?
The Bible teaches so clearly that what is ultimate is a he (God) and not an it (nature). And he (God) is like Jesus, for Colossians 1.15:
he [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God.
But is this belief true or false? Well, Peter is concerned to prove that it is true and it is reasonable and is for all. Cornelius, therefore, should believe in Jesus Christ.
So Peter begins his address by spelling out the fundamental truth about God that vv34-35:
God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
God, you see, is wanting personal trust in himself – which in terms of our relationship should be that of son or daughter to a loving father. But that should include, with God our heavenly Father, a holy fear. And that respectful faith – for that is what holy fear is - if it is genuine, will result in “doing what is right” – good works. So - Cornelius first needed to know that God is for all nations and all people: he shows “no favouritism” to those “who fear him and do what is right.”
Then, Cornelius needed to know the real truth about Jesus. And he needed to know four things relating to Jesus. Like many today, he new something about Jesus but not enough.
So, first, Cornelius and his friends needed to know about Jesus’ ministry, starting with his baptism and “how he went around doing good” (verse 38). But they needed to know that the miracles and the amazing good things Jesus did were not just fanciful myths. They were for real. And the proof is that Jesus’ disciples were present and actually were (verse 39)
“witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem."
Secondly, Cornelius and his friends needed not only to know about, but also to understand the meaning of, Jesus’ death on the cross. Look at the words in verse 39b,
they killed him by hanging him on a tree.
Those words are an allusion to Deuteronomy 21 verses 22-23, which say:
If a man guilty of a capital offence is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight … because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse.
And to quote Paul Galatians 3:13:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.
Peter like Paul, therefore, is saying that Cornelius and the others needed to realize that the death of Christ was not just a heroic martyrdom. No! it was like a sacrifice – with Christ dying to bear the punishment or the curse that Cornelius and his friends (and you and I) deserve. He bore our sins in our place – including the sin of failing to tell others “the Good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all.” So the peace that Christ brings is not just peace between Jew and Gentile, (or today Jew and Arab or whatever social divisions there are). Supremely Jesus’ death meant that we can have peace with almighty God.
Thirdly, Cornelius needed to learn about the Resurrection of Jesus.
Here are Peter’s words in vv40 – 41:
But God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 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.
This is absolutely vital. For the resurrection of Jesus is the great public evidence that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. And it is the evidence that, as Peter already said to the Jews in Acts 4.12:
Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name [than that of Jesus Christ] under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.
And here Peter hammers the truth home that the resurrection was no visionary affair. It was a real resurrection. The risen Christ had a real body – a glorious transformed body. It was no less than his crucified body but much more than that old body. So Peter is arguing that it is reasonable, however amazing, for Cornelius to believe in Jesus. The resurrection proves the truth of Jesus and then means new life, new power through the Holy Spirit for believers and a new order of being. And that is good news.
But then, fourthly and finally, there is a sombre note.
Peter has to speak about the last judgment at Jesus’ second coming. So he says – look at verse 42:
He [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.
The reality of an eternity without God is not the first message to tell seekers like Cornelius. But it must be a part of the message. It is urgent. For people do think and worry about death.
I have just had a major operation where my hip was replaced. Before you go in for an operation you sign a paper that you agree to the operation and that you are aware that the operation can fail and you obviously can die in the operation or as a result of it. A contemporary from my student days died in an operation. And I knew someone who died as a result of an operation here in Newcastle. These are sad and very tragic occasions. But they make you think when it is your turn. And other things make people think about death but then they like to put it out of their minds. Jesus, however, taught that at any time God can say to you, as he said to the farmer in the Parable of the Rich Fool,
This very night your life will be demanded from you
If God were to say that to you tonight, where do you expect to end up – in heaven or in hell? It is not fashionable to talk like this. However, Jesus (says Peter) commanded his disciples to talk about judgment.
But if you today talk to others about Jesus’ judgement, you must conclude with that great assertion in verse 43, namely that …
All the prophets [also all the New Testament apostles] testify about him [Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
That is the secret of facing judgment – to trust in Jesus Christ now for forgiveness. You don’t have to do anything. You simply by faith accept his forgiveness. And having received forgiveness, then, to prove it, you must start living and working for Jesus Christ and (as he did) “doing good”. It is as simple, and profound, as that. At death you then have that great Christian hope of being “with Christ”.
How tragic to be an atheist today who not only is without out God but also without hope. How tragic to die like that 20th century atheistic guru, Bertrand Russell, believing that (I quote):
there is darkness without and when I die there is darkness within. There is no splendour anywhere; only triviality for a moment and then nothing.
I must conclude. I do so with the final verses of our chapter, verses 44-48:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." 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.
Here was confirmation for Peter that he had done the right thing and that the Gospel is, indeed, for all. Yes, he had to fight his prejudices; yes, he had to be willing for conflict; yes, he needed God’s grace to force the pace and strengthen him.
And here too is the confirmation Cornelius needed. He had heard a rational presentation of the gospel message; he was challenged about the resurrection and the last judgement when Jesus comes again. And it seems he and the others were convinced and simply believed. They didn’t need to go to the front of a meeting. They quietly responded to the good news in a matter of fact way as they heard it preached. And then, on this critical, world-historical occasion they experienced a second Pentecost as the Holy Spirit came upon them.
So let me close by saying, perhaps there are some here tonight, who like Cornelius have been challenged and for the first time quietly trusted Christ without any fuss. If so, you should talk to one of us on the senior staff and, like Cornelius, prepare for the next opportunity for baptism or renewal of vows.