The Sovereign Hand of God in the Salvation of the Gentiles
Text: Acts 10:1–11:18
I. Scene 1: God Sends a Message to a God-Fearing Gentile (Acts 10:1–8)
II. Scene 2: God Sends a Message to His Appointed Apostle (Acts 10:9–19)
III. Scene 3: God Brings Salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 10:20–48)
IV. Scene 4: God’s People Recognize God’s Inclusion of the Gentiles (Acts 11:1–18)
V. Three Lessons for the Church Today:
- Personal friendships with unbelievers do not threaten our relationship with God because no one is “unclean.”
- God is working a million different ways to bring the lost to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
- No Matter how moral or religious a persons might be, sinful humans are saved one way: hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Good morning church. It’s so good to be back with you after two-weeks off with our children. And I have to confess, I’m hitting that age where it’s getting harder and harder to say goodbye; especially since Becky, her husband Chris, and our grandson Bennett are heading out as medium-term missionaries for the next two years. During this time, they will be serving on a ship that is able to access many locations that are not always “open” to Christianity.
But this very pursuit presses us into the question why? Why should they (or anyone) quit their job, sell their home, and travel to some remote location on the planet to share Jesus with people they have never met and have nothing in common with? Well, our passage this morning points us to the reason why:
Acts 10:42–43 And he [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Notice, what is the overarching, universal reality of the gospel? In this verse, it’s a warning of future judgment at the hands of one person, and one person alone— “God has appointed Jesus to be the judge of the living and the dead.” This is the bad news of the gospel, but it prepares us for the good news of verse 43, “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Why do we send out missionaries? It’s not to extend Western culture nor is it merely to propagate another yet one more religion among the peoples of the world. No, we send out missionaries for at least two reasons.
We are convinced that every person on this planet will face the judgment seat of Christ— Americans, Ukrainians, Russians, Africans, Arabs, and tribal people in the most remote corners of the rain forest.
It’s God’s delight to save a people for himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation. And few accounts in Acts point us to this truth more than the account of Peter and Cornelius.
So, unlike most weeks, where we work our way slowly through the text, verse by verse (down in the dirt and weeds). This morning we are going to trace the large contours of this account by fly over and through this passage at 50,000 feet so that we can and still have time for personal application at the end.
If you are taking notes, I’ll be dividing this account into four scenes, that celebrate the sovereign hand of God in the salvation of the Gentiles.
In scene 1, God Sends a message to a God-fearing Gentile
In scene 2, God Sends a message to his appointed apostle
In scene 3, God Brings his salvation to the Gentiles
In scene 4, God’s people recognize God’s inclusion of the Gentiles.
Scene 1: God Sends a Message to a “God-Fearing” Gentile (Acts 10:1–8)
Acts 10:1–2 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.
As Luke begins this the story, he wants us to know at least two things about Cornelius.
First, he wants us to know that Cornelius is no “run of the mill” Gentile, no he is a decorated leader in the Roman army who has 100 soldiers at his command. So, Cornelius is not just a soldier, he is a leader in the occupying forces of Rome.
Secondly, he wants us to know, that Cornelius is a very rare kind of Gentile. He is a man whose reverence for and dedication to God eclipsed countless Jews in Jerusalem. He led his home in the worship and fear of the Lord. He gave alms generously to all people. And he prayed continually to God. Yet, for everything Cornelius did out of his love for God; as a Gentile he was restricted to the utmost fringe of synagogue life because of Israel’s religious traditions.
This is important, traditions NOT Old Testament Law. From the time of Abraham, God promised a day when he would bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s offspring. In the Law he told Israel that his goal was to display his goodness and glory through the Law so that Gentiles would become worshipers. And in the prophets, God promised of a day when he would make Israel a light for the gentile nations and that they would worship together as one people.
But as we know, Israel had perverted its special, privileged role in God’s plan into a platform for her own pride AND the grounds for a full-scale rejection and hatred of Gentiles. This division was so deep that Jews refused to even enter the home of a God-fearing Gentile OR invite them into their home (cf. 10:28). God’s chosen people had become a nation whose most basic tenet of religion was an unyielding separation from non-Jews at every level of life.
Yet, it is in the midst of this ethnic animosity and separation that we witness the free and sovereign grace of God. God sends an angel to Cornelius to set up a divine appointment with Peter, a deeply devoted but still ethnically separated apostle living in Joppa.
Scene 2: God Sends a Message to His Appointed Apostle (Acts 10:9–19)
Acts 10:9–16 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
I find it rather interesting that God decided to use a vision instead of an angel. After all, God has sent angels to Peter before. And it’s far easier to receive a direct command than interpret a vision. Right? Well in this case, God is using the unmistakable imagery in this vision to help Peter grasp the ethnic and relational implications of Christ’s death and resurrection.
As most of you probably know: The problem with the animals in this vision is not that Peter was a vegetarian or that the Jews had developed religious traditions about the animals that God was offering to Peter. It is that the animals in the vision were expressly forbidden in the Law of Moses by God’s direct command (Leviticus 11). In fact, Peter is so shocked by God’s demand in verse 13 that he responds with the most emphatic reply, “absolutely not!” I’ve done everything in my power to walk in holiness and obedience before you. How could you ever ask me to do such a thing! I love you and want to walk in obedience in everything that I do.
Yet, what does God say to Peter? “What God has made clean, do not call common (not holy).” And in this God is, in many ways, preparing Peter for his upcoming visit with an argument from the greater to the lesser. What I meant by this is that if God has “made” a legally prohibited animal “clean” / holy, for Peter to eat without sin; how much more should Peter be ready and willing to do the lesser —something God never prohibited in the first place— visit a Gentile’s home.
Acts 10:19–20 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
Notice once again, who is at work in all of this? Who is accomplishing his purposes? It’s God. In fact, Peter doesn’t have a clue why he is being summoned’ to Cornelius’s home until he learns about the angel’s visit from Cornelius himself in verses 30–33.
And it is at this very moment that Peter realizes that God has sent him to Cornelius’s home to do something he had never dreamed of doing; proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to an explicitly Gentile audience.
Scene 3: God Brings Salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 10:20–48)
Acts 10:34–43 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
An Apparent Conflict
Now if you were reading along or listening closely, you might have noticed an apparent conflict in Peter’s gospel presentation. What I mean by this is that while verses 36–43 are a clear and beautiful presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ that culminate in God’s free offer of forgiveness for all who repent and believe; verses 34–35 “appear” to indicate that God accepts anyone who fears him and simply tries to do what is right.
Acts 10:34–35 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
I am raising this question because these two verses have led some scholars and missiologists to conclude that Cornelius was already saved before Peter arrived. And that God’s purpose in Peter’s visit was to inform Cornelius and his family of the salvation that they already. And on account of this, these scholars openly contend that: there are countless people in the world who are truly born again and accepted by God and saved despite the fact that they have never heard of OR believed in Jesus Christ.
But if this is the case it would have a drastic impact on the way we think about world missions and the need for my daughter and her family (or any of our missionaries) to ever leave America and take the gospel to the nations.
I’d like to show you three ways that this passage emphasizes Cornelius’s desperate need to hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Three Ways the overall story emphasizes Cornelius’ need for gospel.
First, if we look at Peter’s report to the church in Jerusalem, in Acts 11:13–14, What is the angel’s message?
Acts 11:13–14 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.
As John Piper points out, there are at least two things in this passage that emphasize Cornelius’s lostness and desperate need for the gospel. One, Cornelius needed to hear a message he had not heard— he needed to hear the message of the gospel. Two, this message is the very means by which Cornelius will receive something he does not possess— salvation (the tense of the verb is future).
In this we can clearly see that Peter’s message was not to merely inform Cornelius that he already was saved. Not in the least bit! The angel is telling Cornelius that if he sends for Peter and hears the message and believes, then he WILL be saved. And if he does not, he won’t be.
Romans 10:14–15 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
This is why the whole story revolves around the miraculous way that God brought Peter and Cornelius together. There was a message that Cornelius needed to hear to be saved (vv. 22, 33).
The second way that this account emphasizes Cornelius’s need for salvation is that Peter concludes his sermon with a compelling call to respond to the gospel.
Acts 10:43 To him [to Christ] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Notice, who receives forgiveness and is saved from judgment on the final day? Is it the person who fears God and does their best to obey him? No! According to Peter, it’s the person who believes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation at its core is forgiveness of sins. And no one is saved whose sins against God are not forgiven by God.
So again it is very unlikely that verse 35 means that Cornelius and his household were already forgiven for their sins before they heard the message of Christ.
Finally, as we have been studying our way through the book of Acts, how have the apostles presented the gospel to the most God-fearing and devout Jews in Israel? Have they told them that they are already saved? No. They have consistently called them to repent and believe so that they might receive forgiveness and be saved.
Acts 2:38–39 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”
Don’t miss this, throughout the entire book of Acts, Luke never tells us that devout, God-fearing people who do their best to do what’s right are already saved and simply need to be told that they are. No! Luke tells us that gospel took first root among the most God fearing, devout, and religious people in the world. A people that had more advantages in knowing God than any other people of the face of the planet.
Yet, despite all of their advantages they were told again and again that their and works of righteousness and religious sincerity could not solve the problem of their guilt and sin before God. But that God had provided the means for their forgiveness and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
What does Peter mean?
But this leaves us with the question: What does Peter mean when he says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34b:35). I think he is pointing us to two complimentary truths.
One, the fact that God does not show partiality heralds the gospel truth that God has not restricted his promises in the gospel to a certain kind of person or race. And that is because all people are lost in their sin and in need of a Savior.
Two, God is not callous about the condition of the lost, especially those who are actively pursuing him. We see this, in that, Cornelius represents a special kind of unsaved person (maybe even among an unreached people group) who is seeking after God in an extraordinary way. And Peter is saying that God honors this kind of searching (“acceptable” in verse 35) by bringing a gospel messenger to that person in the most unexpected ways.
So, returning to the story, what is the ultimate outcome of this divine appointment? Cornelius and his household believe the gospel and are filled with the Holy Spirit just like the disciples at Pentecost.
And as a result, what does Peter do? He welcomes them into the church with open arms by baptizing them in the name of Jesus Christ because he recognized that the blessing of Pentecost had been poured out not only on Jews and their half-blood relatives, the Samaritans; BUT Gentiles as well. The only thing left was to share the amazing news with the church in Jerusalem.
Scene 4: God’s People Recognize God’s Inclusion of the Gentiles (Acts 11:1–18)
Acts 11:1–3 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
The Initial Response
Notice, how does the church in initially Jerusalem respond to the news of God’s work among the Gentiles? No one is openly celebrating their salvation. And to make matters worse the circumcision party (those who believed that Gentiles must convert to Judaism to become a Christian) openly attacked Peter for eating with his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is a problem because if left unaddressed, it could have resulted in two separate churches that refused to even interact with each other.
The Key to Unity
So, what was the key? What did these Jewish Christians need to overcome their religious scruples AND fully recognize God’s inclusion of the Gentiles? They needed to know three things:
- They needed to know God arranged the meeting.
- They needed to know that Jesus had fulfilled the law, forever removing the boundary markers (food laws) that isolated Israel from the nations.
- But most of all they needed to know that Jews and Gentiles had received the very same gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 11:17–18 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Notice, it is only after hearing about the way that God arranged the meeting and learning that God poured out his Spirit on the Gentiles that they truly recognize the fact that God had already welcomed the Gentiles into the Church. And they rightly respond by celebrating the sovereign hand of God in the salvation of the Gentiles. Because in Christ there is only one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4–6).
So how can we apply the truths of this passage to our everyday lives given the fact that we are not facing the same problem today? Well, I believe that we can draw out at least three lessons.
Three Lessons for the Church Today
1. We need to recognize and embrace the Biblical truth that personal friendships with unbelievers do not threaten our relationship with God, because no one is unclean.
Now by this I am not encouraging you to the kind of friendships where you affirm or participate in the sins and sinful lifestyles of unbelieving acquaintances. If you have close relationships with unbelievers that are leading you away from God and into sin, you need to repent and step away.
1 Corinthians 15:33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”
Rather, I am encouraging you to find creative ways to enfold unbelievers into your life with the hope and goal that you can be a gospel influence in their life. And as you are thinking about the unbelievers in your life, I want you to think about the ones you are most tempted to shun (treat as unclean) because of their political affiliation or even more, their unbiblical ideas about human sexuality. Does this require wisdom and care? Of course, it does!
In fact, the world of medicine provides us with the proper balance and perspective. In the same way that a doctor doesn’t treat the diseased so that they can get infected themselves; but to help the diseased find healing and wholeness. So Christians should find ways to interact with unbelievers in the hope that they might find forgiveness and salvation in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. Whether we can see it or not, God is working in a million different ways to bring the lost to saving faith in Jesus Christ. This is an encouragement for both personal evangelism and global missions. Let’s consider global missions for a moment.
What ultimately drives faithful, gospel-loving Christians to quit their jobs, sell their homes, and relocate to a foreign country to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ? (I’m not talking about those who use missions as an opportunity to travel the world at the expense of their local church) I think that this passage points us to the reason: God is actively working behind the scenes to move his people to a place where they can do his gospel-work. Which brings us to the third and final lesson.
3. No matter how moral or religious a person might be; sinful humans are saved one way— hearing (reading) the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We see this, in that, for everything that Cornelius did right before God, he needed something more. He needed to find forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ so that he could receive salvation AND eternal joy at the judgment seat of Christ… just like many of our family, friends, and acquaintances at work or in the local community who might be nice moral people but are still in desperate need of Jesus Christ.
Who knows? God may have placed them in your life for this very reason.
 This section is developed from John Piper, “What God has Cleansed Do Not Call Common” in John Piper, Sermons From John Piper (1990–1999)(Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).
 Bruce Milne, The Acts of the Apostles: Witnesses to Him… to the Ends of the Earth, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2010), 242.