Grace for Every Race
Grace for Every Race
Main Idea: In order to convert the Gentile Cornelius and to show the Jewish Christians the gospel was for everyone without distinction, God had to first “convert” Peter.
- Scene 1: Introduction (9:32–10:8)
- Scene 2: Vision (10:3-16)
- Scene 3: Application (10:17-33)
- Scene 4: Declaration (10:34-43)
- Scene 5: Confirmation (10:44-48)
- Scene 6: Resolution (11:1-18)
- Concluding Exhortations
- Jesus overcomes disease and death—rely on him!
- Jesus shows hospitality to all—imitate him!
- Jesus commands us to preach to everyone—proclaim him!
- Jesus saves irreligious and religious people—worship him!
After describing the conversion of Saul, Luke provided a summary of the church flourishing and growing “throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” (9:31). In this narrative on the ministry of Peter, we see the church’s mission extending into greater Judea and, most importantly, “to the end of the earth” through the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius in Caesarea. Thus, the Acts 1:8 commission sees fulfillment.
Three big game changers in the book of Acts are Pentecost, the conversion of Saul, and the conversion of Cornelius. The Pentecost event described in chapter 2 was one of the most important in the history of the world. On that day the promised Holy Spirit was poured out on the Christians in Jerusalem, granting them gifts and power to fulfill Jesus’s mission. Then in Acts 9, Saul (Paul) converted. Much of the rest of Acts (after these chapters) has to do with ministry among the Gentiles. And that’s where Cornelius fits. Through Peter’s ministry to Cornelius, God pours out his Spirit on the Gentiles and confirms to Peter and other disciples that the gospel is for the nations. God gave glimpses of his heart for the nations with the conversion of the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch, but with this conversion his love for the nations is on full display for the church and for the world to witness and accept.
In order to convert Cornelius, and to show the Jewish Christians the gospel was for everyone without distinction, God had to “convert” Peter—not to Christianity but to the implications of Christianity (Azurdia, “The Conversion of Peter”). Peter had to be convinced that the gospel is for everyone, including those completely outside the Jewish nation.
God’s saving grace extends to those of every people group who cry out to the Savior for salvation. Yet this basic truth is difficult for some Christians to apply because of deeply embedded prejudice that can lurk within even a redeemed heart. Consider the following example of an all-too-common attitude Christians display toward outsiders:
Mahatma Gandhi shares in his autobiography that in his student days in England he was deeply touched by reading the Gospels and seriously considered becoming a convert to Christianity, which seemed to offer a real solution to the caste system that divided the people of India. One Sunday he attended church services and decided to ask the minster for enlightenment on salvation and other doctrines. But when Gandhi entered the sanctuary, the ushers refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go elsewhere to worship with his own people. He left and never came back. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said to himself, “I might as well remain a Hindu!” (Hughes, Acts,149).
The sad fact is we have all heard other stories just as heartbreaking as this one. I have known church members, even pastors, to express a similar attitude toward particular people groups.
The propensity to discriminate is a result of humanity’s sinful fallen nature. People discriminate against others based on age, appearance, ancestry, affluence, and achievements. The results of this bad habit are featured in the news regularly: senseless shootings abound and people spew hateful rhetoric against certain groups. But we must understand that prejudice in its many forms is evil, and we must repent of it. Further, we must keep repenting of the tendency to discriminate because it is deeply ingrained in many of us—even without our realizing it. Even the apostle Peter had to struggle to overcome the sin of showing partiality (Gal 2:11-14).
Remember the reluctant prophet Jonah? He didn’t want to go to Nineveh. Why? Because he despised the Assyrian people who lived there.
There are many similarities between Jonah and the reluctant apostle Peter. In fact, Peter’s real name is Simon Bar-Jonah (Simon, son of Jonah; Matt 16:17). The Lord commissioned both Jonah and Simon Bar-Jonah to carry his message to their enemies. Both protested. Peter was no more willing to mingle with the Gentiles than Jonah was with the Ninevites. Nevertheless, both eventually withdrew their protests—Jonah after spending three days and nights in the belly of a great fish and Peter after receiving an instructive vision repeated three times. After preaching God’s message as instructed, both men witnessed God’s granting repentance to the outsiders. This provokes a hostile response from Jonah, representative of traditional Israel, and God corrects him. The positive response of Cornelius’s household evokes an antagonistic response from others within traditional Israel, which God also corrects. Jonah and Simon Bar-Jonah are both sent to display God’s heart for the nations, and both needed a missional conversion.
There are many impediments to the advancement of the gospel, as we’ve observed in our study of Acts. We’ve seen outside persecution. We’ve seen internal drama. And here we see another impediment: our own hearts. We must overcome discrimination in order to be good missionaries.
What is your disposition when you encounter a person with tattoos and multiple piercings? When you are introduced to a same-sex couple or encounter a cross-dresser when paying for your groceries? How do you speak and act when introduced to those whose politics are the opposite of yours? What about when you meet a Muslim family new to your neighborhood? Are you and your friends unaffected by the elitism, exclusivism, and discrimination that pervade our society? This text teaches that no wall should keep Christians from offering the gospel of Jesus freely and lovingly to everyone.
The Cornelius story is the longest of all the narratives in Acts. Its ripple effects were felt for years afterward. Allow me to note six scenes.
Scene 1: Introduction
Peter (9:32-42). This section opens with a (re)introduction to Peter and then to Cornelius. Peter was last mentioned in Acts 8, with the Samaritan mission.
Having already witnessed God’s working of miracles through Peter, we may wonder why these two miracles are included here. First, they reinforce the authenticity of Peter’s apostleship. They remind us of who Peter is and that he is running in the footsteps of Jesus. Second, they demonstrate the power of Jesus. Peter’s mission to the nations (and ours) is propelled by the resurrection power of Jesus. Third, these miracles provide signs of the coming kingdom of Jesus, who will heal the sick and raise the dead. Finally, these miracles aren’t ends in themselves; in both stories people turn to the Lord for salvation as a result of them (9:35,42).
The first miracle, involving Aeneas, highlights Christ’s power over disease. Peter is traveling about, preaching the gospel and visiting the believers in Lydda (9:32). Since these believers were living in a transitional period, they surely had lots of questions about how to apply the law and live out their faith. While in Lydda, some twenty-five miles northwest of Jerusalem and about twelve miles southeast of Joppa, Peter met Aeneas. The man had been paralyzed and bedridden for eight years.
I can only imagine the longings of this guy’s heart. Maybe he desperately wished to feel his wife’s feet snuggled beside him under their blankets, to be able to feed himself, to experience the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, to feel the Mediterranean splash against his ankles on a summer day. Whatever dreams he cherished, he was about to see them come true.
When Peter sees Aeneas, he simply says, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed” (9:34). In doing this Peter points to the power, Jesus, who had a history of healing paralytics (cf. Luke 5:24-25). And Aeneas just got up and walked in response to Peter’s words. Just imagine the joy in this man’s heart!
Assuming this story follows the pattern of Acts 3, the miracle attracted a crowd, and Peter preached the gospel to them. Thus, many people were converted (9:35).
Next we see Christ’s power over death displayed in the story of Dorcas. This saint fell ill and died, and Luke tells us what had made her so special: verse 36 says, “She was always doing good works and acts of charity.” (What a great epitaph!) The widows for whom she had made clothes mourned for her deeply (v. 39). The disciples in Joppa promptly sent for Peter, hoping he might raise her up. They didn’t even bury her; they placed the woman’s body in a room, hoping for a miracle. And they weren’t disappointed: God used Peter to display Christ’s power over death.
Peter stands in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, and especially of Jesus. Like Jesus and Elisha, Peter sends everyone out of the room when he shows up to call the dead back to life; he’s left alone with the corpse (cf. 2 Kgs 4:33; Mark 5:40). Like Elisha, Peter falls to his knees in prayer, looking to the One with resurrection power as his help. (Jesus didn’t have to pray in Mark 5 because he is the resurrection and the life!) Peter then calls Dorcas by her Aramaic name: “Tabitha,” he says, “get up!” This is almost an echo of Jesus’s Aramaic command to Jarius’s daughter, “Talitha koum” (Mark 5:41). In response Dorcas opens her eyes like the Shumammite woman’s son did in 2 Kings 4:35 as he awakened. Dorcas then sits up, as did the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:15). Then, as Elijah and Jesus gave sons back to the widowed mothers (1 Kgs 17:23; Luke 7:15), so Peter gives the widow back to the saints.
Both of these miracles set the stage for the next one. Having shown us Christ’s power over disease and death, Dr. Luke has prepared us to see Christ’s power over discrimination.
Luke concludes the chapter by noting that Peter is in Joppa, staying with Simon, a tanner (9:43). This is significant. Clearly God was already overcoming some of Peter’s cultural biases. A tanner was rendered perpetually unclean by the Jews because he dealt with dead animals in order to convert their skins into leather.
Cornelius (10:1-8). Caesarea was the capital of the Roman occupation of Israel. It was a military town. It’s right on the coast, thirty-one miles north of Joppa. It’s important to know that the Jews hated Caesarea. They called it the daughter of Edom, a place of ungodliness, that is a symbolic name for Rome.
Cornelius is a captain of the occupying Roman army. As a centurion, he would have commanded about a hundred Roman soldiers posted in Caesarea, and he would have been paid as much as five times more than an ordinary soldier. So he’s a wealthy and influential man. Jews, however, surely resented him.
In this intensely Gentile place Peter comes to terms with his own prejudices. The gospel is about to shatter an antigospel tradition lurking in the apostle’s heart.
What is the most despised location in the world to you? Which nation, city, or part of town could you do without? Take a moment to consider why you feel that way. Now, imagine traveling to that location, working to befriend those you meet there, and offering them the good news. That’s Peter’s assignment.
Luke doesn’t want us to miss Cornelius’s religious devotion (10:2). The man “feared God.” The term “God fearer” was applied to Gentiles who adhered to Judaism’s faith in one God as they obeyed the Ten Commandments while balking at the idea of submitting to circumcision or to following the kosher dietary restrictions of Leviticus (Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 124). Jews tended to respect such people, though they kept them at arm’s length because of their practices. Luke also notes that the man’s piety involved the giving of alms and prayer. Such generosity explains why he was well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation (v. 22). In some ways he is like the centurion at Capernaum, who had a respectable relationship with the Jewish people, supporting their work (Luke 7:4-5).
Importantly, though Cornelius was a religious man, he wasn’t a regenerate one. Cornelius was like Nicodemus—the man to whom Jesus spoke the words of John 3:16—in that he was pious and respected. Jesus told the latter, “You must be born again.” That is, even a “good” man must be radically converted. The gospel isn’t just for irreligious people; it’s for religious people too.
Scene 2: Vision
Just as complementary visions between Saul and Ananias confirmed God’s call to Saul, so here we have complementary visions confirming the import of what would happen between Cornelius and Peter.
Cornelius first receives a vision to meet with Peter (vv. 3-8). The former’s sundial was set to the temple’s time, to the time of the evening sacrifice, and during his time of prayer, he gets instruction from an angel. Cornelius isn’t a Christian when this happens, and it’s important that God doesn’t save him in this vision. In Acts 11 we receive a bit more detail about what happened:
[Cornelius] reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa, and call for Simon, who is also named Peter. He will speak a message to you by which you and all your household will be saved.” (Acts 11:13-14; emphasis added)
In the vision God directs Cornelius to the evangelist. Cornelius becomes a Christian when he hears the message and believes it (cf. 4:12; Rom 10:14-17). While God began working in the heart of Cornelius by his initiating grace, Cornelius needed to know the gospel and embrace it.
I recently heard about a missionary in a dangerous part of the Middle East who started an underground church. Locals tried to discover the location of that assembly in order to persecute the believers there, but they could never find it. Late one night, however, the missionary heard a knock on the door of the secret church. He cautiously opened it to see a tribesman standing there. The man explained that he had walked for days in order to find the missionary. He said, “I had a vision three days ago that there would be a man standing at this address who would tell me how to get to heaven. Sir, are you this man?” That tribesman, like Cornelius, was given a vision leading him to an evangelist who would teach him how to cross from spiritual death to abundant life.
An old classmate was recently ministering to Muslims in Washington, DC. One day a Muslim man approached him and asked, “Who is ‘I Am’? I keep seeing ‘I Am’ in my dreams.” After giving a summary explanation, he gave the seeker a Bible and encouraged him to read the Gospel of John. It wasn’t long until he led the man to faith in Jesus, and at that point the convert confessed, “Many of the ‘I am’ statements I read in John I heard first in my dreams!” This story, too, reminds us that even when God uses visions to nudge people toward faith in Christ, evangelists must still do the exciting work of explaining the gospel to them that they might understand and embrace it with confidence.
God doesn’t always speak to nonbelievers—or even to Christians—through dramatic dreams. Sometimes he draws people through a deepdown hunger of sorts. Sometimes he begins to nudge people toward faith in Christ by making them curious about the gospel or about spiritual questions involving what happens after death or why people follow moral codes. If you are hungering to know more about Jesus or find yourself drawn into a conversation with someone who expresses such desire, realize that God does actually seek us. C. S. Lewis once remarked, “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ . . . They might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat” (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy).
In 10:9-16 Peter receives a vision in which he is told to eat all kinds of meat without concerning himself with whether such foods are clean or unclean according to the Jewish dietary laws. Notice that Peter, like Cornelius, was praying when he received his vision. I’m not suggesting that something dramatic like this will happen every time we pray, but I do think it indicates that those who humbly seek the Lord in unhindered and unhurried prayer experience great blessing.
Peter is commanded to kill and consume diverse creatures, even those forbidden in Leviticus 11 (cf. Mark 7:19). While Peter doesn’t understand the symbolism at work in this vision yet, these unclean animals symbolize God’s cleansing of the unclean Gentiles. But Peter refuses to obey the command three times; he has a history of three-time rejection followed by affirmation! Food restrictions had long isolated the Jews from the Gentiles, but God was breaking down the wall.
To share food and drink at a table with others is a big deal. It’s a declaration of friendship, and in that way it’s like declaring a covenant. As Christians we should be willing to eat with anyone. And we should receive hospitality from anyone. Currently, many in my church have been reaching out to West Africans and other Muslims in our city. It has been so encouraging to hear stories about how these believers have shared meals with these neighbors. Doing so has broken down many walls and allowed for several fruitful discussions, and some of these Muslim friends have attended our worship services.
Scene 3: Application
Next, Peter and Cornelius apply their visions. Peter is pondering the things he’s seen when the visitors arrive at the gate. They won’t enter it because they’re Gentiles. Peter is told he must not hesitate to go with them (v. 20). After all, a Roman official didn’t ultimately send them; God did. So Peter goes out to meet them. The men tell him a bit about Cornelius, the angel, and their purpose (v. 22). Then Luke says, “Peter then invited them in and gave them lodging” (v. 23). This hospitality offer may not seem like a big deal to us, but for Peter and other Jewish Christians it signaled a huge gospel moment! Peter and others are being “converted” out of the thinking that the good news is for the Jews alone.
Not only did Peter give the men lodging, but the next day he made a two-day journey to Caesarea, taking some of the brothers from Joppa with him (v. 23). These men would serve not only as companions but also as witnesses.
When they finally arrive in Caesarea, both Cornelius and Peter display deep humility. Cornelius, a Roman official, bows before this Jewish fisherman! Then the Jewish fisherman reminds Cornelius that both are simply men, created by God. There’s no need to bow to one another. They are together only because they have submitted to God’s Word and are acting in humility toward God and one another.
In verses 30-32 Cornelius replays the events for Peter, telling the apostle why he sent for him. Then Cornelius displays even more humility, expressing eagerness to hear Peter’s word from God (v. 33). I can’t imagine receiving a better invitation to preach the gospel!
Consider three ways we can display a love for all our neighbors, regardless of their ethnicity or background.
- We can show no hesitation in befriending people unlike us (v. 20).
- We can show hospitality toward everyone, opening our homes and lives to them (v. 23).
- We can show humility before all people, regardless of their skin color or annual income, living with the understanding that we’re all made in God’s image (v. 26).
Would displaying love in these ways come easily for you, or might you first need to be “converted” like Peter? If you hesitate at the idea of befriending and associating with people unlike you or have never opened your home to those outside your usual circle, it’s possible that you do have an air of elitism. If so, ask the Lord to change your heart, to give you his perspective.
Scene 4: Declaration
I love that Peter responds appropriately to the spiritual softball Cornelius throws. He doesn’t strike out but hits a home run as he preaches the gospel.
What exactly does he proclaim? First, he denies that God shows partiality across ethnic lines (v. 34; cf. Deut 10:17-19). Second, he affirms that God welcomes from every nation people who fear him (v. 35). In making this statement Peter isn’t saying that God’s welcome is based on works (see the necessity of faith and forgiveness in 10:43). Instead, he’s simply saying that God shows mercy to those who humble themselves before him. Third, Peter stresses that Jesus, the sent One who preached peace, is Lord of all (v. 36). Fourth, Peter assumes the crowd is aware of Jesus’s controversial earthly ministry (vv. 37-38), which included several elements. Peter mentions the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’s baptism, Jesus’s good deeds, Jesus’s healings and power over the devil, and God’s presence with Jesus. Fifth, Peter centers his message on the cross, the resurrection, and the return of Jesus (vv. 39-42). Then, finally, Peter mentions the prophets—but the sermon gets cut off before passages are quoted (v. 43; cf. 11:15) as the Spirit of God falls on the Gentiles in the middle of the sermon (10:44).
This passage provides essentials we should ponder and incorporate into our own gospel presentations:
- Jesus, the Messiah, is Lord of all.
- Jesus was empowered by the Spirit to liberate the devil’s captives.
- Jesus died under the curse deserved by others.
- Jesus was raised up to reign forever.
- Jesus will judge everyone.
- All of this is in accordance with the Scriptures, which promise forgiveness for everyone—from every people—who trust in Jesus’s name.
This message of salvation opened the door of the kingdom to the Gentiles, and it will continue to open the door to heaven for all who will embrace it. John Stott comments on Peter’s door-opening ministry:
We have already watched him [Peter] use these keys effectively, opening the kingdom to Jews on the Day of Pentecost and then to Samaritans soon afterwards. Now he is to use them again to open the kingdom to Gentiles; by evangelizing and baptizing Cornelius, the first Gentile convert (cf. Acts 15:7). (Message of Acts, 19)
And it’s to this baptism we now turn.
Scene 5: Confirmation
Luke records the Gentiles’ amazing response to Peter’s sermon. What happens here is essentially a Gentile Pentecost, verifying that salvation has come to them also. The verse 44 phrase “came down” appeared in 8:15 when the Spirit fell on the Samaritans during what some call the Samaritan Pentecost. The phrase “poured out” (v. 45) makes us think of the same expression used for the Pentecost that happened in Jerusalem in 2:17-18.
The Spirit is opening a new chapter in the spread of salvation to the ends of the earth! The Gentiles too are children of Abraham—not through circumcision, but by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone.
There are other parallels to the Jerusalem Pentecost. The Gentile believers were speaking in tongues, extolling God (cf. 2:4-11). Further, the onlookers were amazed (10:45; cf. 2:6-12). Finally, new believers were baptized (10:47-48; cf. 2:41).
While some of the Jewish brothers would struggle to welcome Gentiles, God welcomed them. He confirmed his welcome through these signs that demonstrated Jew and Gentile are on equal ground once they accept Christ (cf. Gal 3:28-29). The Spirit confirmed it, and seven Jewish believers witnessed these things. The massive gulf between Jew and Gentile was suddenly bridged.
Scene 6: Resolution
Not everyone rejoiced at this change. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, he encountered great criticism because of his association with the Gentiles (11:1-3). Peter’s response was simple: he retold the events. Then he mentioned how he remembered the Lord’s words, which contrasted water baptism with Spirit baptism (1:5; 11:16). This showed him how God had given Gentiles the same gift, the same Spirit, and the same cleansing as the Jewish believers.
Then Peter asks the critical brothers, “How could I possibly hinder God?” (v. 17). In this we see that Peter was thoroughly convinced God was working to save the Gentiles; to stand in God’s way was neither wise nor safe. (Just ask Jonah.)
The critics were awestruck (v. 18). This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that every single person was convinced of the Gentile mission. But Dennis Johnson notes, “Although there were some silent detractors, the church joined Peter in praising God for his gift to the Gentiles” (Let’s Study Acts, 142). And they were right to glorify God. No one deserves salvation. Those who experience it—Jew and Gentile alike—should give the Savior ceaseless praise.
The point of this narrative is this: the gospel is for the nations. God’s conversion of Peter’s attitude and the spiritual conversion God brought about in Cornelius paved the way for the Gentile mission. Of course, God had already converted the Ethiopian eunuch prior to this work through Peter, but this story in Acts 10–11 has special significance:
Like Cornelius, the eunuch seems to have been both a “God-fearer” and a Gentile. The significant new development in chap. 10 is that Peter became committed to the Gentile mission. His testimony would be instrumental in leading the mother church in Jerusalem to endorse the Gentile mission and thus lend it legitimacy and continuity with the ministry of the apostles (11:1-18; 15:7-11). (Polhill, Acts, 249)
This new commitment to get the gospel to the nations will now unfold throughout the rest of the book of Acts.
Jesus Overcomes Disease and Death—Rely on Him!
Our source of power today comes through our union and communion with Jesus Christ. Do you need his strength in the midst of sickness, grief, or pain? Look to him. Do you need power to testify boldly about his grace? Rely on the One who raises the dead!
Jesus Shows Hospitality to All People Groups—Imitate Him!
This text provides a wonderful picture of gospel hospitality, of extending welcome to outsiders. Will you ask God to use you in reaching a Cornelius? To do so, you may need to pray for God to cleanse you of sinful attitudes toward others. John Piper says,
Let us wash our minds and our mouths of all racial slurs and ethnic put-downs and be done with all alienating behaviors. And let’s be the good Samaritan for some ethnic outcast, and let’s be the Christ for some untouchable leper, and let’s be the Peter for some waiting Cornelius. (“What God Has Cleansed Do Not Call Common”)
Jesus Commands Us to Preach to Everyone—Proclaim Him!
Peter gives us a good model of what we’re to do: we must preach the gospel. It’s the power of God for salvation “to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). Don’t doubt the gospel’s power. Have full confidence in it as you present it to everyone on the planet.
Jesus Saves Irreligious and Religious People—Worship Him!
God in his grace reaches down to convert vicious men like Saul, immoral people like the Samaritan woman at the well, and religious men like Cornelius who might appear to have everything together. Regardless of your preconversion state, if you’re a Christian today, you should stand amazed at his grace to you. To him be the glory forever.
Reflect and Discuss
- Why do you think Luke recorded these two miracle stories in Acts 9:32-42?
- What do these two miracle stories teach about Christ and the kingdom?
- Why is the story of Cornelius’s conversion so important?
- If Cornelius was so pious, then why did he need the gospel?
- How does the story of Cornelius’s conversion speak to the sin of partiality?
- Why is table fellowship important in the Bible? How should we apply the principle?
- How does this passage highlight the nature and importance of gospel hospitality?
- How did God “convert” Peter to the implications of Christianity?
- How does the story in Acts 10:1–11:18 advance the message of the book of Acts?
- Pray for opportunities to welcome outsiders into your home, into your life, and into the kingdom this week.