Chapter 10 is pivotal in the Book of Acts, for it records the salvation of the Gentiles. We see Peter using “the keys of the kingdom” for the third and last time. He had opened the door of faith for the Jews (Acts 2) and also for the Samaritans (Acts 8), and now he would be used of God to bring the Gentiles into the church (see Gal. 3:27-28; Eph. 2:11-22).
This event took place about ten years after Pentecost. Why did the Apostles wait so long before going to the lost Gentiles? After all, in His Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), Jesus had told them to go into the entire world; and it would seem logical for them to go to their Gentile neighbors as soon as possible. But God has His times as well as His plans, and the transition from the Jews to the Samaritans to the Gentiles was a gradual one.
The stoning of Stephen and the subsequent persecution of the church marked the climax of the Apostles’ witness to the Jews. Then the Gospel moved to the Samaritans. When God saved Saul of Tarsus, He got hold of His special envoy to the Gentiles. Now was the time to open the door of faith (Acts 14:27) to the Gentiles and bring them into the family of God.
There were four acts to this marvelous drama.
Preparation (Acts 10:1-22)
Before He could save the Gentiles, God had to prepare Peter to bring the message and Cornelius to hear the message. Salvation is a divine work of grace, but God works through human channels. Angels can deliver God’s messages to lost men, but they cannot preach the Gospel to them. That is our privilege—and responsibility.
Caesarea is sixty-five miles northwest of Jerusalem and thirty miles north of Joppa (Jaffa). At that time, Caesarea was the Roman capital of Judea and boasted of many beautiful public buildings.
In that city lived Cornelius, the Roman centurion, whose heart had tired of pagan myths and empty religious rituals, and who had turned to Judaism in hopes he could find salvation. Cornelius was as close to Judaism as he could get without becoming a proselyte.
There were many “God-fearers” like him in the ancient world (Acts 13:16), and they proved to be a ready field for spiritual harvest. It is interesting to see how religious a person can be and still not be saved.
Certainly, Cornelius was sincere in his obedience to God’s Law, his fasting, and his generosity to the Jewish people (compare this to Luke 7:1-10). He was not permitted to offer sacrifices in the temple, so he presented his prayers to God as his sacrifices (Ps. 141:1-2). In every way, he was a model of religious respectability—and yet he was not a saved man.
The difference between Cornelius and many religious people today is this: he knew that his religious devotion was not sufficient to save him. Many religious people today are satisfied that their character and good works will get them to heaven, and they have no concept either of their sin or God’s grace. In his prayers, Cornelius was asking God to show him the way of salvation (Acts 11:13-14).
In many respects, John Wesley was like Cornelius. He was a religious man, a church member, a minister, and the son of a minister.
John Wesley belonged to a “religious Club” at Oxford, the purpose of which was the perfecting of the Christian life.
Wesley served as a foreign missionary, but even as he preached to others, he had no assurance of his personal salvation.
On May 24, 1738, Wesley reluctantly attended a small meeting in London where someone was reading aloud from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. “About a quarter before nine,” Wesley wrote in his journal, “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ. I felt my heart strangely warmed; I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
The result was the great Wesleyan revival that not only swept many into the kingdom but also helped transform British society through Christian social action.
God sent an angel to instruct Cornelius and, in true military fashion, Cornelius immediately obeyed. But why send for Peter, who was thirty miles away in Joppa, when Philip the evangelist was already in Caesarea? (Acts 8:40) Because it was Peter, not Philip, who had been given the “keys.” God not only works at the right time, but He also works through the just servant, and both are essential.
Peter also had to be prepared for this event since he had lived as an Orthodox Jew all of his life (Acts 10:14). The Law of Moses was a wall between the Jews and the Gentiles, and this wall had been broken down at the cross (Eph. 2:14-18).
The Gentiles were considered aliens and strangers as far as the Jewish covenants and promises were concerned (Eph. 2:11-13). But now, all of that would change, and God would declare that, as far as the Jew, and the Gentile were concerned, “There is no difference” either in condemnation (Rom. 3:22-23) or salvation (Rom. 10:12-13).
Why did God use a vision about food to teach Peter that the Gentiles were not unclean? For one thing, Peter was hungry, and a vision about food would certainly “speak to his condition,” as the Quakers say. Second, the distinction between “clean and unclean foods” was a major problem between the Jews and the Gentiles in that day. In fact, Peter’s Christian friends criticized him for eating with the Gentiles! (Acts 11:1-3) God used this centuries-old regulation (Lev. 11) to teach Peter an important spiritual lesson.
A third reason goes back to something Jesus had taught Peter and the other disciples when He was ministering on earth (Mark 7:1-23). At that time, Peter did not fully understand what Jesus was saying, but now it would all come together.
God was not just changing Peter’s diet; He was changing His entire program! The Jew was not “clean” and the Gentile “unclean,” but both Jew and Gentile were “unclean” before God! “For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). And this meant that a Gentile did not have to become a Jew to become a Christian.
Even though Peter’s refusal was in the most polite terms, it was still wrong. Dr. W. Graham Scroggie wrote, “You can say ‘No,’ and you can say ‘Lord’; but you cannot say “No, Lord!'” If He is truly our Lord, then we can only say “Yes!” to Him and obey His commands.
God’s timing is always perfect, and the three men from Caesarea arrived at the door just as Peter was pondering the meaning of the vision. The Spirit commanded Peter to meet the men and go with them. The phrase “nothing doubting” (Acts 10:20) means, “making no distinctions.” You find it again in Acts 11:12, and a similar word is used in Acts 11:2 (“contended with him”=”made a difference”). Peter was no longer to make any distinctions between the Jews and the Gentiles.
Explanation (Acts 10:23-33)
The fact that Peter allowed the Gentiles to lodge with him is another indication that the walls were coming down. Peter selected six Jewish believers to go along as witnesses (Acts 11:12), three times the official number needed. It would take at least two days to cover the thirty miles between Joppa and Caesarea. When Peter arrived, he discovered that Cornelius had gathered relatives and friends to hear the message of life. He was a witness even before he became a Christian!
How easy it would have been for Peter to accept the honor and use the situation to promote himself; but Peter was a servant, not a celebrity (1 Peter 5:1-6). When he announced that he did not consider the Gentiles unclean, this must have amazed and rejoiced the hearts of his listeners. For centuries the Jews, by Old Testament Law, had declared the Gentiles to be unclean, and some Jews even referred to the Gentiles as “dogs.”
The remarkable thing in this section is Peter’s question, “So I came as soon as I was sent for. Now tell me what you want?” (Acts 10:29)
Didn’t Peter know that he had been summoned there to preach the Gospel? Had he forgotten the Acts 1:8 commission to go to “the uttermost part of the earth”?
Today, we can look back at developing events in the church and understand what God was doing, but it might not have been that easy had we been living in the midst of these developments. In fact, the Jerusalem church questioned Peter about his actions (Acts 11:1-18) and later called a conference to deal with the place of the Gentiles in the church (Acts 15).
Cornelius rehearsed his experience with the angel and then told Peter why he had been summoned: to inform him, his family, and his friends how they could be saved (Acts 11:14). They were not interested in Gentiles asking for a lecture on Jewish religion. They were lost sinners begging to be told how to be saved.
Before we leave this section, some important truths must be emphasized. First, the idea that “one religion is as good as another” is completely false and those who tell us that we should worship “the God of many names” and not “change other people’s religions” are going contrary to Scripture.
“Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), and there can be no salvation apart from faith in Jesus Christ, who was born a Jew. Cornelius had piety and morality, but he did not have salvation.
Some might say, “Leave Cornelius alone! His religion is a part of his culture, and it’s a shame to change his culture!” God does not see it that way. Apart from hearing the message of the Gospel and trusting Christ, Cornelius had no hope.
Second, the seeking Savior (Luke 19:10) will find the seeking sinner (Jer. 29:13). Wherever there is a searching heart, God responds. And this is why it is essential that we as God’s children obey His will and share His Word. You never know when your witness for Christ is what somebody has been precisely waiting and praying for.
Third, Peter certainly was privileged to minister to a model congregation (Acts 10:33). They were all present, they wanted to hear the Word, and they listened, believed, and obeyed. What more could a preacher ask?
Proclamation (Acts 10:34-43)
There can be no faith apart from the Word (Rom. 10:17), and Peter preached that Word. God is no respecter of persons as far as nationality and race are concerned. When it comes to sin and salvation, “there is no difference” (Rom. 2:11; 3:22-23; 10:1-13). All men have the same Creator (Acts 17:26), and all people need the same Savior (Acts 4:12).
Acts 10:35 does not teach that works save us. Otherwise, Peter would be contradicting himself (Acts 10:43). To “fear God and work righteousness” is a description of the Christian life. To fear God is to reverence and trust Him (Micah 6:8). The evidence of this faith is a righteous walk.
Peter then summarized the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Cornelius and his friends knew about Christ’s life and death, for “this thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Peter made it clear that Israel was God’s instrument for accomplishing His work (Acts 10:36), but that Jesus is “Lord of all,” and not just Lord of Israel. From the very founding of the nation of Israel, God made it clear that the blessing would be from Israel to the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3).
The public generally knew about Christ’s life, ministry, and death, but only the Apostles and other believers were witnesses of His resurrection. As in his previous sermons, Peter laid the blame for the Crucifixion on the Jewish leaders (Acts 3:15; 4:10; 5:30), as did Stephen (Acts 7:52). Paul would pick up this same emphasis (1 Thes. 2:14-16).
Having finished this recitation of the historical basis for the Gospel message, Christ’s death, and resurrection, Peter then announced the good news: “Whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sin” (Acts 10:43; see 2:21). His hearers laid hold of that word “whosoever,” applied it to themselves, believed on Jesus Christ and were saved.
Vindication (Acts 10:44-48)
Peter was just getting started in his message when his congregation believed, and the Holy Spirit interrupted the meeting (Acts 11:15). God the Father interrupted Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:4-5), and God the Son interrupted him in the matter of the temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27). Now, God the Spirit interrupted him—and Peter never was able to finish his sermon! Would that preachers today had interruptions of this kind!
The Holy Spirit was giving witness to the six Jews who were present that these Gentiles were indeed born again. After all, these men had not seen the vision with Peter and come to understand that the Gentiles were now on an equal footing with the Jews.
So this does not suggest that every new believer gives evidence of salvation by speaking in tongues, though every true believer will certainly use his or her language to glorify God (Rom. 10:9-10). And this was an event parallel to Pentecost: the same Spirit who had come on the Jewish believers had now come on the Gentiles (Acts 11:15-17; 15:7-9). No wonder the men were astonished!
With this event, the period of transition in the early history of the church comes to an end. Believers among the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles have all received the Spirit of God and are united in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27).
Being baptized did not save these Gentiles; they were baptized because they gave evidence of being saved. To use Acts 2:38 to teach salvation by baptism, or Acts 8:14-16 to teach salvation by the laying on of hands, is to ignore the transitional character of God’s program. Sinners have always been saved by faith; that is one principle God has never changed.
But God does change His methods of operation, and this is clearly seen in Acts 1-10. The experience of Cornelius and his household makes it very clear that baptism is not essential for salvation. From now on, the order will be: hear the Word, believe on Christ, and receive the Spirit, and then be baptized and unite with other believers in the church to serve and worship God.
Peter lingered in Caesarea and helped to ground these new believers in the truth of the Word. Perhaps Philip assisted him. This entire experience is an illustration of the commission of Matthew 28:19-20. Peter went where God sent him and made disciples (“teach”) of the Gentiles. Then he baptized them and taught them the Word.
That same commission applies to the church today. Are we fulfilling it as we should?
Bible Exposition Commentary – Be Dynamic