Sermon on Acts 10:1-48 – “Accepting the Unacceptable”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, Nov 27th, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Scripture reading:

[Act 10:1-48 ESV] 1 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. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. 9 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. 17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 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.” 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he invited them in to be his guests. The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” 30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” 34 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.” 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

I. Two Devout Soldiers

Cornelius is a devout soldier. A Roman soldier. A Gentile. And he’s not the only one. After an angel came to him in a vision saying that God has heard his prayers and that he is to send for Simon Peter, then Cornelius sent two servants AND A DEVOUT SOLDIER. So there are two devout soldiers in this account. Cornelius and another who is unnamed.

The fact that a man can be a soldier and yet a man who fears God is substantial. If a complete pacifism were Biblical, this man could hardly be called devout and fearing God while remaining in the army. There is, no doubt, some form of pacifism in the Scriptures. Jesus teaches us to “turn the other cheek.” Matthew 5:39 “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek turn to him the other also.” This is a personal pacifism. But the law had made it clear in Exodus 22:2 that “if a thief is found breaking in and is stuck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him.” And, in places in the Old Testament, God not only allows for his people to go to war, but commands it! So then, a full pacifism must be rejected. Though being a soldier is permissible it may not always be beneficial. In the early centuries of the Christian church, the Roman army was so filled with foreign Gods and so-called “mystery religions” that it was not a beneficial place for a Christian to be.

Well we have Cornelius the devout God-fearing soldier in our text. And we can’t help but reflect back to the last time we saw Roman soldiers. What were they doing? They were killing the Lord of Glory.

So to now find one who is believing is a shock to the reader. But it begins this chapters main point: That God has made that which was unacceptable to be acceptable.

It is a double shock. First that a gentile is declared clean. Then there is the shock that this gentile is a soldier!

And not only is Cornelius accepted by the Lord, he is given the honor of having an angel sent to him.

The Lord is working then to bring the Gospel to Cornelius, sending him to get Simon Peter to tell him the truth.

Though the Lord is working, we should also note that Cornelius is a great example for those who were not raised in Christian homes. He was an Italian, a people that despised the Jews and their God. Yet Cornelius rejected the false gods of Rome and embraced the True God of Israel. Such a rare and difficult thing was that — for one who does not grow up in the Church to come to believe — that we must praise God alone for such a remarkable and miraculous occurrence. And he prayed continually and even had a believing household. God has greatly blessed him. And Cornelius blessed many others, giving alms generously to the people.

While Paul was a Roman citizen too, he was Jewish by blood. But Cornelius was a Roman of Romans, a captain in the Italian Cohort. And yet, he was accepted by God.

Cornelius, and another devout soldier, and indeed Cornelius’s family were believers. So there was a number of Gentiles fearing the Lord in that place even before hearing the full Gospel of Jesus Christ.

II. Peter’s Vision

We then move to Peter. Like Cornelius he too receives a vision. And again the Lord brings the formerly unacceptable into acceptability.

Peter falls into a trance and sees “the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth.” And “In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.” And a voice came to him saying “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter was quick to say essentially “Heavens no, these are unclean animals. And I’ve never eaten these.” But the Lord responded “What God has made clean, do not call common.”

And it strikes me that this passage is often used to say that the Old Testament dietary restrictions are no longer in place.

But as we read the rest of the story we find that the primary motive here is not in declaring foods clean, but in declaring PEOPLE clean.

Still, it is worth noting that the dietary restrictions of the Old Testament are no longer in place. We may have pepperoni on our pizza.

First, we should understand that the dietary laws were for the purpose of making the Israelites distinct from other nations. But now, all nations are being called to the Gospel. The distinction is done away with.

Then in Mark’s Gospel (7:19) it explicitly says that Jesus declared all foods clean. And throughout the New Testament we find that Jesus fulfilled the law, thus abrogating the ceremonial laws.

So Peter’s vision matches with that same teaching. We do not need to eat kosher.

But the point about food is there in order to make a greater point about people. It is people that are in view in this passage.

Both Jews and Gentiles (that is non-Jews) are called to faith in Jesus Christ.

III. Cornelius and Peter Together

We then have a meeting between a Jew (Peter) and a Gentile (Cornelius). The very idea of this meeting was impossible for the Jew, except Peter had has the vision from God and came to understand its meaning.

So the three men sent by Cornelius find Simon Peter in Joppa and bring him back to Caesarea to meet with Cornelius. The two men who have just had visions are now meeting together.

And when they meet Cornelius fell down at Peter’s feet and worshipped him. Why did he do this?

Calvin thinks that Cornelius was just trying to honor Peter, but overdid it. It doesn’t seem that Cornelius thought Peter was God.

Also, evidencing that Cornelius didn’t of Peter as God (or even as the Pope) is the fact that Cornelius called for Peter, rather than traveling to Peter himself. Cornelius is the one with higher civic standing.

So when Cornelius bows down Peter corrects Cornelius of course saying “Stand up, I too am a man.” Now we should note that whenever someone worshipped Jesus he didn’t stop them. That is because their worship was rightly focused because Jesus is Lord.

Then Peter talked with Cornelius and gathered others who were there and said “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”

And Peter says “So, when I was set for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”

Cornelius explains how the angel had visited him and told him to send for Simon Peter. And Cornelius says “Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

I like what Calvin writes here: “the wall which was heretofore between the Jews and Gentiles is now pulled down.” They are ingrafted into one body.

Surely some Gentiles were believers in the Old Testament. But it is was few, and there were requirements on them, like circumcision, to join the Jewish people.

But now, the wall is pulled down. God’s gracious Gospel is to be preached to all men. Though Christ had previously told the disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15) it seems the disciples were slow to move on that task. They generally preached to the Jews first and remained in Jerusalem or the land of Israel in the early years. But now the message is coming in more clear and the work to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples is beginning to come forward in stronger measure.

And I think this really is in line with the theme of the book of Acts. The theme is not just “early church history” but the expansion of the Gospel to the nations. The Gospel is to be proclaimed in all places to all people.

Peter’s response to Cornelius (in vs. 34-43) is a great summary of the Gospel. It is up there with Paul’s summary in Corinthians 15. Here the same elements are mentioned by Peter: Christ was put to death, but God raised him on the third day and he appeared to many, declaring that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Peter also emphasizes that fact that it is “everyone.” He says “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

In the last four verses the Holy Spirit is prominent. He is said to be a gift poured out even among the Gentiles. What then is the gift of the Holy Spirit? It is FAITH. Faith is by the operation of the Holy Spirit within us. The gentiles here in the book of Acts are coming to faith in great numbers.

How did Peter know these were Gentiles? Probably they were dressed differently, but also he heard them speaking in tongues, the languages of there many nations. And perhaps understanding the languages to an extent or having an interpreter (or simply reading the body language) it was clear to Peter that these new believers were extolling God.

The word, in Greek, for tongue is “glossa.” And if you look in a trusted sources like Strong’s Concordance you’ll see that first means “the tongue.” That organ of speech itself. But the second definition of glossa is “the language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations.” So it can be that Paul is talking about foreign languages, but it can also include people speaking in other regional dialects of Hebrew of Aramaic. And elsewhere in Scripture we understand that the Galileans speak differently from the residents of Jerusalem. And perhaps other areas had other dialects. But the languages they are hearing are emphasized as Gentile languages (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, etc.).

So on this basis — that these gentiles have faith as much as the Jews among them do — Peter declared that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Application: Go with it.

We probably won’t receive visions, but when a person crosses paths with you, as Cornelius and Peter did, you should look for what the Lord is doing. Ask “For what purpose is the Lord bringing this person to me?” Perhaps you, or the other person, will be greatly blessed.

Application: Against Racism and all other forms of Partiality.

James 2 tells us not to be partial to the rich over the poor. And that message extents to other poles as well. Slave and free. Jew and Gentile. Popular or unpopular. We are not to have prejudice.

And it is so powerful in the book of Revelation when we see the scene of heaven. I wonder what racists would do with this passage? It clearly condemns them.

Revelation 7:9-10 in John’s vision:

“After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could numbers, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the thrones, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands, and cried with a loud voice, saying “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”

They all cried together! One people. The Lord’s people.

And this is the fulfillment of the work of the Gospel which is growing and emphasized in the book of Acts. God’s word does not return void, but brings many to salvation in Christ’s name.

We should therefore never despise any type of person but rejoice in that God has declared the unclean to be clean and the unacceptable to be acceptable in his sight because of the Work of Jesus Christ. In whose name we pray. Amen.