On the Day of Pentecost, which we read about in Acts 2, the Lord Jesus, from his throne in heaven, poured out his Spirit on the believers in Jerusalem. And afterwards, to explain what had happened, Peter quoted from the Old Testament prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Now, when we looked at those verses, I explained that the Holy Spirit was at work in the Old Testament period to convince sinners of their sin and to enable them to trust in God’s promise of salvation. But his work at that time was confined to the people of Israel. But through the prophet Joel, God promised that one day he would pour out his Spirit on all people. In other words, on all kinds of people. Not just on the people of Israel, but on people in every nation of the world. And that’s what we’re seeing in the book of Acts.
First of all, in Acts 2 we read how he poured out his Spirit on the people in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. Then in Acts 8 we read how he poured out his Spirit on the Samaritans who were regarded as half-Jews and half-Gentiles. And now, in chapter 10, we read how he poured out his Spirit on Cornelius and his household. And Cornelius was a Roman Centurion. In other words, he was a Gentile. Once the work of the Holy Spirit was confined to the people of Israel. But God, through Joel, had promised that one day he would pour his Spirit on all kinds of people, so that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Cornelius and his household — this Gentile household — heard the good news about Jesus Christ. And the Holy Spirit came on them. And they too were baptised and added to the church of Jesus Christ. God was keeping his promise to Joel.
Verses 1 to 16
Really we can divide this chapter into three main sections. In verses 1 to 16 we have two visions. In verses 17 to 29 we have two journeys. And then, in verses 30 to 48 we have salvation for the Gentiles. In verse 1 we’re introduced to Cornelius, a Centurion in the Italian Regiment. A regiment was made up of 6 centuries. And a century was made up of around 100 men. And a Centurion, like Cornelius, was in charge of one of these centuries. So, Cornelius was the commander of 100 men. We’re told that he lived in Caesarea. This was where the Roman governors lived — and therefore it was regarded as the headquarters for the Romans in the province of Judea. Its population was predominately Gentile.
We’re told in verse 2 that Cornelius and his family were devout and god-fearing. In other words, they worshipped God in the local synagogue and were careful to walk in his ways. Apparently this was not uncommon and many Gentiles became adherents of Judaism and worshipped the Lord. We’re also told that Cornelius gave generously to those in need. A better translation is that he gave alms to ‘the people’ — and ‘the people’ is a technical term for the Jewish people. So, he supported the Jewish nation, even though he was a Roman soldier. And he prayed to God regularly — which perhaps means he followed the custom of the Jews who prayed to God at set hours during the day.
In verse 3, we’re told that he was praying at 3.00 pm which was one of the set times for prayer. And while he was praying he received a vision from the Lord. An angel spoke to him and told him that God had taken note of his prayers and his gifts.
And, of course, we should note that carefully ourselves. Whenever we pray, God knows it and he hears us. And though no one else may be aware of what we give to support the work of the church or what we give to our needy neighbours, the Lord sees it all. And the Lord loves a cheerful giver, we’re told in 2 Corinthians 9. And in Hebrews 6 we’re encouraged to love our neighbours by these words:
[God] will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.
No one else may know what we do, but the Lord sees it and he will not forget the ways we have loved and served our needy neighbours. Therefore, we should be careful to love them in practical ways.
The angel went on to tell Cornelius to send messengers to Joppa to fetch Simon Peter who was staying with Simon the tanner. And so, after the vision had ended, Cornelius did exactly what he was told to do: he told two servants and a devout soldier what had happened and sent them to Joppa to get Peter.
In verse 9 we’re told that the next day, Peter was praying on the roof of Simon’s house at 12 noon or so. And, being 12 noon, and lunchtime, Peter began to get hungry. And while he was waiting for his lunch, he fell into a trance. And he saw heaven opened and this large sheet, a table cloth perhaps, being lowered down to him. And the sheet contained all kinds of four-footed animals as well as reptiles and birds. And a voice spoke to him and told him to get up and kill and eat whatever he saw. But Peter refused. And he objected:
I have never eaten anything impure and unclean.
Now, he’s referring to those creatures deemed unclean by God in his Old Testament law. In Leviticus 11, for example, God listed the kinds of animals and birds which the Jews may not eat. And so, Peter would not eat the unclean animals he saw on this sheet.
We need to remember what I said when we were discussing the moral law in our series of sermons on the Shorter Catechism. There are three kinds of law in the Old Testament. There’s the moral law. And then there’s the ceremonial law. And then there’s the civil law. The moral law is the most important one for us, because these are God’s commandments for how we should live our lives — and they’re for all people at all times. The moral law is summarised briefly by the twin commands to love God and to love our neighbour. We’re all to do that. Then there’s the ceremonial law which contains all the rules and instructions we find in the Old Testament concerning the ceremonies and rituals and sacrifices which the people of Israel were commanded to perform as part of their worship in the Old Testament. These laws pointed forward to the coming of Christ, the true lamb of God who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And then there’s the civil law which was for the people of Israel as a nation. Laws about what to do if your animal gets loose and kills someone. Laws about what to do if someone has an infectious skin disease. Laws about what to do if there’s mildew in your house. Laws about what to wear. And laws about what to eat. The civil law was for the nation of Israel — and Christians today are not obliged to keep them, because we’re not part of the nation of Israel.
However, Peter grew up as a Jew and had been taught all his life to keep these civil laws and to distinguish between clean foods and unclean foods. But now, the voice that had been speaking to him said that he mustn’t call anything impure that God has made clean. And the message was so important, it was repeated three times: Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean. That applies to food — but it also applies to Gentile believers. You see, growing up, Peter would have been taught to have nothing to do with the Gentiles who were regarded by the Jews as being unclean. But now he must learn that if God is prepared to accept Gentile believers into the church, then so must Peter and all the other Jewish believers.
In verse 17 we read that Peter was wondering what the vision could possibly mean. And while he was wondering about this, the three messengers arrived and asked for him. And in verse 19 we read that the Holy Spirit told Peter to go with them. So, he went down stairs and greeted them. Why have you come? he asks. And so they told him about Cornelius and how an angel had told him to fetch Peter. And the end of verse 22 is important. The messengers said:
A holy angel told him [Cornelius] to ask you [Peter] to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.
Let me repeat that:
so that [Cornelius] could hear what you have to say.
Faith comes by hearing God’s word. Again and again in the book of Acts, we learn that the way the Lord Jesus convinces men and women and children to believe, and the way he builds his church on the earth is through the preaching of God’s word about Jesus Christ. The apostles and evangelists were sent out to make known the message of Jesus Christ and his life and death and resurrection for sinners. And whoever hears and believes is baptised and added to the church. And we’ll see this emphasis on hearing God’s word again. For now, though, in verse 23 Peter invites the messengers into the house.
Verses 23b to 33
The next day they set off together for Caesarea and when they arrived there, Cornelius was expecting them. And he’s called together all his family and close friends — a large gathering of people, we’re told in verse 27.
We read in verse 25 that whenever Cornelius met Peter for the first time, he fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter tells him to get up. You see, while it’s right to honour our leaders and give them the respect they deserve, worship is to be directed to God alone and not to any man, even to an apostle like Peter.
In verse 28 Peter explained to the people what they probably already knew: that it was unlawful or it was against the custom of the Jews for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or to visit him in his home. That’s the way it used to be. However, and this is the thing which had only recently been revealed to Peter in his vision: God had now revealed to Peter that he shouldn’t call any man impure or unclean the way he once used to do. So, when he was asked to come to Cornelius’s house, he felt free to do so. And then he asks: Why have you sent for me? And in verse 30 Cornelius describes his vision. And in verse 33 he says:
So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.
This is where I’m going to stop today, but this verse is so important for us if we’re to understand what preaching really is and why preaching is so very important to believers. First of all, let’s notice that Peter is to tell them everything the Lord has commanded him to tell them. In other words, a preacher has been called by God to preach. And when he preaches, he’s to preach God’s word. So, if he does not preach, but spends his time doing other things, then he has failed to fulfil his calling. And if he does not preach God’s word, but preaches his own ideas, then he once again has failed to fulfil his calling. As Paul said to Timothy:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word!
So, the preachers responsibility, the minister’s responsibility, is to preach the word of God.
Secondly, if the preacher’s responsibility is to preach God’s word, what is the responsibility of the people? Look what Cornelius says in verse 33:
we are all here … to listen to everything….
That large gathering of people, made up of Cornelius’s relatives and close friends, have gathered together because they want to listen to God’s word. Well, what an encouragement it is to a preacher when he knows that the people who have gathered together have come because they want to hear God’s word. And what a discouragement it is for a preacher when he suspects that the people before him in the congregation aren’t really interested in listening to God’s word. The preacher’s prayer every week is that those who gather in church will come because they’re hungering and thirsting for God’s word.
And thirdly, and most importantly, listen again to verse 33:
we are all here in the presence of God….
When we meet together to hear God’s word, God is with us. We can’t see him, but we believe he’s present with us by his Spirit. This is what John Calvin says about this:
as often as the Word of God is set before us, this thought ought to suggest itself to our minds, and make a serious impression upon them, that we have not to do with mortal man, but that God is present and is calling us.
When we meet together, and God’s word is preached, we ought to remember that God is present. And so our meetings ought to be characterised by reverence and solemnity, because we’re meeting before God who is holy and almighty. And we ought to listen carefully and attentively because God is speaking to us from his word. And through the reading and preaching of God’s word, Jesus Christ comes near to us to convince and convert sinners to believe in him. And through the reading and preaching of God’s word, Jesus Christ comes near to build up believers in holiness and comfort through faith.
What we do on Sundays and on those other occasions when God’s word is preached may not seem every exciting. To some it may even seem boring. But to others, it’s like heaven on earth because when God’s word is preached and heard, God comes near and meets with his people to help us.