This is the final section of the book of Acts that deals primarily with Peter's ministry in and around Jerusalem. Peter has been privileged to be the first to preach the full gospel on Pentecost Sunday, and Luke completes his review by describing the events that precede and follow this Apostle's preaching to the Gentiles for the first time as well. So far the Apostles and their disciples have been preaching to Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism (i.e. Philip and the eunuch). Peter, however, will break through this wall of separation (Jew/Gentile) and bring the gospel to a Roman soldier thus opening the door for Paul and others to freely proclaim the Good News to all men regardless of culture, gender, religion or position in society.
Peter Preaches to the Gentiles – Acts 10:1-11:30
1Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, 2a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually. 3About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, "Cornelius!" 4And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; 6he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea." 7When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, 8and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
- Acts 10:1-8
The Jews had two classes of converts (Lenski, p.67):
- Proselytes of the Gate: These converts were not subject to circumcision and observed only a limited portion of the Law forbidding idolatry, blasphemy, disobedience to judges, murder, fornication/incest, theft and eating of blood. The eunuch that Philip baptized was one of these as was Cornelius, probably because he was a Roman soldier and a foreigner.
- Proselyte of Righteousness: These were Gentiles that became complete Jews, accepting circumcision, and were subject to all of the Law. They were permitted to enter and worship at the Temple (in the Court of the Gentiles).
Although he was a Proselyte of the Gate, Luke describes Cornelius (centurion is a Roman officer over 100 soldiers) as being:
- Devout/pious: A proselyte who worshiped the God of the Jews and led his household in that direction.
- Benevolent: He used his position and wealth to benefit the poor thus confirming that his faith was sincere.
- Spiritually minded: He wanted a spiritual relationship with God and pursued it through prayer.
His prayers are answered as God gives him instructions to bring Peter to his home. Note that the angel could have preached the gospel to him then and there, but that task was given by God to men not angels, so that even if it was more complicated to arrange, Cornelius sends for Peter.
9On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; 11and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13A voice came to him, "Get up, Peter, kill and eat!" 14But Peter said, "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." 15Again a voice came to him a second time, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." 16This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.
- Acts 10:9-16
God provides a vision where Peter is commanded to eat food that Jews were not permitted to eat according to Jewish food laws. The Lord had prepared Cornelius for Peter's visit with the appearance of an angel who gave him specific instructions. God also prepares Peter so that he will be able to carry out God's mission despite the challenges it will present him as a faithful Jew.
Jewish ceremonial and food laws were given to the Jews by God in order to make a distinction between themselves as God's people and other nations (Gentiles) who were not. For example, the whole world labored seven days per week, but the Jews were different in that they devoted one day (Sabbath) to the Lord and rested. The other nations ate every kind of food. Jews were different because what they did or did not eat was guided by their law given to them by God. Once Christ came, the way to be separated from the world was to follow Him and submit to the direction of the Holy Spirit who leads Christians through His Word (New Testament) spoken by Christ and taught by His Apostles (Acts 2:42).
The problem for Peter as well as the other Apostles was that the practices that they had followed as Jews (food laws, Sabbath day observations, etc.) were now taken away or fulfilled by Jesus, but they were slow to understand. This included the rules concerning their association with Gentiles. For example, they could not enter a Gentile's home or share a meal with them, nor could the Gentiles enter a Jew's home or the Temple.
In the vision of the clean and unclean food and the command to eat, God was teaching Peter two things:
- God had the authority to establish laws, change laws, or suspend laws because He was God, the giver of laws.
- He was now amending the law concerning food, declaring that all food was to be considered "clean" and thus could be eaten freely by Jewish Christians (something Jesus had already declared in Mark 7:19).
17Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon's house, appeared at the gate; 18and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. 19While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you. 20But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself." 21Peter went down to the men and said, "Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?" 22They said, "Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you." 23So he invited them in and gave them lodging.
- Acts 10:17-23a
Peter, still trying to absorb the meaning of the vision, is told that the men sent by Cornelius are at the gate and he should welcome them. Peter greets them and after hearing the reason for their journey invites them to spend the night with him and Simon's family. Peter may not have understood the full impact of the vision but nevertheless obeyed God's instructions to invite the Gentiles in, despite his discomfort.
Peter Meets Cornelius
23bAnd on the next day he got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him. 26But Peter raised him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am just a man." 27As he talked with him, he entered and found many people assembled. 28And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. 29That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me."
30Cornelius said, "Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, 31and he said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.' 33So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord."
- Acts 10:23b-33
Luke describes both Cornelius' preparations for Peter's visit (he had no doubt that the Apostle would come). There is also a marvelous image of these two pious and humble men deferring to one another. Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, kneeling in front of this Galilean fisherman in front of his family and friends. And the servant of the Lord refusing this type of homage declaring the truth that before God both of them were only men (sinful men).
Peter begins by speaking to the obvious issue, "What are a group of Jewish men doing visiting/entering the house of a Gentile?," something that everyone knew was not permitted for a Jew. He does not describe his vision, as Cornelius will do in a moment, but demonstrates that he has understood the meaning of the vision God gave him and that he has obeyed it. Cornelius explains his own vision and how this has led to Peter's arrival in his home. The stage has now been set for the first instance where the gospel will be proclaimed to the Gentiles.
Peter Preaches to the Gentiles (10:34-43)
Peter's lesson assumes that his hearers are all familiar with the facts of the gospel as were most of the people who lived in that area and knew of Jesus, His ministry, as well as His death and reports of His resurrection. He also includes the new information given him by God in the vision that the gospel is for all, not only the Jews to whom he had been preaching since Pentecost. His main point is that he and the Apostles are actual witnesses of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
39We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, 41not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins."
- Acts 10:39-43
Response to Peter's Preaching (10:44-48)
44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered,
- Acts 10:44-46
Before Peter can finish by encouraging his audience to repent and be baptized as he did with the crowd on Pentecost Sunday, Cornelius and the other hearers begin speaking in tongues and praising God. Luke describes this phenomenon as, "the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the Gentiles."
Think back to other times in the book of Acts when the Holy Spirit was mentioned and answer this question, "What has just happened here: empowerment by the Holy Spirit or indwelling of the Holy Spirit?" The answer is: empowerment. The Holy Spirit empowered these people to speak in tongues. I believe this happened in order to convince those that did not have a vision (like Peter's companions) that God was extending the gospel to the Gentiles, not only to the Jews. There were many prophets who said that this would be so (Micah 4:2; Zechariah 8:22; Amos 9:12) including Jesus Himself in Mark 13:10.
47"Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" 48And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
- Acts 10:47-48
Peter now finishes his lesson by directing these new believers to be baptized because if there were any who doubted that the gospel was also for the Gentiles, their questions had been answered by the Holy Spirit Himself when He empowered these people to speak in tongues. Peter mentions that they had received the empowerment by the Holy Spirit just like the Apostles did, without human intervention (no laying on of hands). He also insists that they be baptized in order to obey the gospel and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
And so God uses the appearance of an angel, a special vision and the empowering of Gentiles to direct Peter to open the gospel to non-Jews. We find out that all of this and more would be necessary to convince the early church, made up exclusively of Jewish Christians, to accept this directive from God.
Peter Reports to Jerusalem – Acts 11:1-18
Luke describes Peter's return to the church in Jerusalem and his explanation of the breakthrough for the gospel message now brought to Gentiles. Upon his return he faces a skeptical reaction from the Jewish Christians who are concerned that he has associated with and preached to Gentiles. These Jews had become Christians but were emotionally and culturally still operating from a Jewish worldview. Peter then reviews his vision and the vision that had prompted Cornelius to send for him in the first place, along with what took place while he preached to them, and the church concluded that this was from God.
It is interesting to note that Peter, the Apostle, was still subject to explaining his actions to the church to guarantee and prove that what he had done was from God and not his own initiative. Today, leaders and teachers are accountable to the church which uses the Scriptures to judge their teachings and ministry (II Timothy 2:15).
The Church at Antioch – Acts 11:19-30
19So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. 22The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.
- Acts 11:19-24
Here we see God's providential care ordering events in favor of His kingdom on earth, the church. Peter has opened the door to the Gentiles. Christians, forced out of Jerusalem, preach to Gentiles while on their travels. This news reaches the leaders in Jerusalem, who have already given their blessing to the evangelization of the Gentiles. Barnabas, who has proven his faithfulness and generosity to the church, is sent to help teach these brethren who have formed or joined the church at Antioch. Luke writes that Barnabas' ministry there was successful and the church grew.
25And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
- Acts 11:25-26
Growing churches need ministers, so Barnabas finds Saul since, as a Roman citizen, he will be effective in teaching these Gentile converts. We can understand that the name "Christian" was coined at Antioch since they had a mixed cultural group (Jew and Gentile) who needed a concise name that would eliminate any cultural, social or former religious identity from them. The term "Christian" accomplished these goals perfectly.
27Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.
- Acts 11:27-30
A true test of fellowship arises, this time for the Gentile Christians. A famine is predicted by one of the prophets from Jerusalem who also brings a request for assistance. This was the first example of inter-congregational cooperation for the purpose of assistance and benevolence. The challenge for Antioch was if the Gentile brethren would send money to their Jewish brothers and sisters who, before becoming Christians, had despised them. The challenge for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem was the reverse, would they receive charity from Gentiles, even if they had confessed Christ?
The answer is found in verse 29, where Luke reports that all who had the ability (both Jew and Gentile) gave, and the two main teachers: Barnabas (named first because he is still discipling Saul at this point) and Saul are entrusted with delivering the gift to the church in Jerusalem. The way that all of this was handled was a testimony that the Apostles in Jerusalem and the teachers (Barnabas and Saul) from Antioch succeeding in their teaching and preaching ministries.
Peter's Arrest and Delivery – Acts 12:1-25
1Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. 2And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. 3When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. Now it was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4When he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out before the people. 5So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.
- Acts 12:1-5
Luke chooses to end his narrative of Peter's ministry with his arrest by Herod and miraculous deliverance by the hand of an angel. Luke also adds more early church historical information by including the death of the Apostle James. The church in Jerusalem is undergoing severe trials and challenges at this time:
- Challenges brought about by rapid growth (several thousand people added in only a few years).
- Demanding benevolence needs (requiring seven deacons to operate a food service for widows).
- Local famine on the general population (prophesied by Agabus).
- Persecution of the church beginning with Stephen's death and the dispersion of many members.
Now Luke adds that James is killed and Peter arrested, not by the Jewish religious leaders but by King Herod this time. This was not Herod Antipas who had questioned Jesus and only ruled in the northern region of Galilee. This was Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great, who now ruled all of the region and was seated in Jerusalem. He had Peter arrested to curry favor with the Jewish leaders.
In Acts 12:6-19, Luke mentions that despite their many trials and discouragements, the church prayed for Peter's release. Peter's miraculous escape made possible by an angel is described in the kind of detail that could have only been provided by an eyewitness. Luke also adds a humorous account of how a young maid's excitement left Peter standing out in the street knocking on the door of Mary's (John Mark's mother) house while she ran in to announce that Peter was at the door. Peter is finally let in and instructs the brethren to inform James (the Lord's brother, not the Apostle that had been killed by Herod) and others of his freedom. Peter probably went into hiding to avoid Herod's efforts at recapturing him. Luke mentions Peter again in chapter 15 where he and others discuss certain issues taking place at the church in Antioch.
Acts 12:20-23: As an epilogue, Luke adds a few verses describing Herod's death soon after Peter's escape. This produced a lull in the on-going persecution of the church and Luke ends the section about Peter's ministry on a positive and hopeful note.
24But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied. 25And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark.
- Acts 12:24-25
Obey What You Know
We do not always have all the facts or clearly see God's overall plan or purpose for us when making decisions about obeying His will in a matter. In this type of situation it is wise to obey or follow the ways or commands of the Lord that we know and are sure of. After all, we live by faith, not by sight. Sometimes we just have to obey and pray that God will provide us with understanding at some point. Imagine if Peter had been stubborn, not understanding God's greater plan, and refused (as was his life-long custom) to mix with Gentiles? God would have used another servant and another way to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, but think of the opportunity and blessings Peter would have forfeited!
God Blesses Those Who Bless
In Acts 10:4, Luke says that Cornelius' prayers and alms (giving to the needy) were recognized by God. It was not that his piety and benevolence saved him, it was that his good works were seen as sincere, and in return God gave him the opportunity to hear the gospel. There is a lesson here for both the good person who is a Christian and the good person who is not:
- The Christian needs to remember that it is not a person's goodness or generosity that saves them, it is the gospel and obedience to it. In speaking of personal righteousness the prophet Isaiah says, "all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment." (Isaiah 64:6). As Christians we should not assume that good, kind and generous people are somehow excused from hearing and obeying the gospel message. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
- There is also a lesson for the good and upstanding person that never harmed anyone and always did their best. These should not depend on their own goodness to save them if they are not Christians. The reward for your good life is not salvation. God's reward to the "good" person is exposure to the message of the gospel. You can only offer up the sacrifice of Christ (through faith expressed in repentance and baptism) in exchange for eternal life with God, because He will not accept your life, no matter how good you believe it to be.