GOD ACCEPTS PEOPLE FROM EVERY NATION
Acts 9:32-10:48, Key Verse: 10:34,35
“Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.’”
Welcome back to the book of Acts! The last passage we studied from Acts, with M. Paul’s message in November, was the conversion of Saul. Jesus’ amazing grace changed the worst enemy of the church into her most powerful servant. Christ had great plans for Saul to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. But before we get to that, today we go back to Peter. Before Christ could use Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles, he used Peter to open the door of the gospel for the Gentiles. However, to do so, Jesus first has to open the door of Peter’s own heart! Through this passage we can understand God’s heart which accepts people from all nations with no favoritism. And may God can change our hearts to be the same. The message has four parts.
Peter’s servant life (9:32-43)
When we last left Peter, in Acts chapter 8, he had traveled with John to Samaria to check out the gospel work going on through Philip the Evangelist. When Peter and John prayed for the first Samaritan believers and laid their hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, showing that God had accepted the formerly despised Samaritans into his church. Then Peter had returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in other Samaritan towns along the way.
Where today’s passage picks up, the church in Jerusalem was enjoying a time of peace, being strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, and increasing in numbers. What was Peter up to? Look at Chapter 9 verse 32. “As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda.” It seems Peter had begun to travel regularly, visiting the churches around Judea. Lydda was a city about 25 miles Northwest of Jerusalem, toward the Mediterranean coast.
I am really impressed by Peter’s ministry lifestyle here. As a foundation stone of the church, I’m sure that if Peter wanted to he could have just sat down in a big chair in Jerusalem and given orders to others. Instead, he went out and served the church. Peter’s life reminds me of our own Dr. John Jun, who after he stepped down as general director, still works harder than many younger men, traveling all over to serve missionaries’ continuing education. Of course, the church also needs administrative workers, but that doesn’t have to be everybody’s ambition.
As he traveled, Peter was given great spiritual power to bless the church. In Lydda he healed a man named Aeneas who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. Actually Peter didn’t heal him by his own power; he said, “Jesus Christ heals you.” As a result of this, verse 35 says “All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.”
Then, while Peter was still in Lydda, he received an urgent request to come to Joppa, which was on the coast about 12 miles away. There was a disciple in Joppa named Tabitha. She was always doing good and helping the poor, making clothes for the widows and others. When Tabitha became sick and died, it plunged the whole church into sorrow. But Peter humbly answered the request and came to Joppa, and in an upstairs room he raised Tabitha from the dead with the words, “Tabitha, get up.” (9:40). He presented her to the believers alive. Verse 42 says that this became known all over Joppa, and as a result many people believed in the Lord.
Peter became so powerful, right? He did one of the most powerful miracles—raising the dead. I believe one secret of Peter’s great spiritual power came from his humble life of serving. He made himself available to others. Peter’s lifestyle was modeling the servant leadership of Jesus, as described in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” I pray we may see the glory of a life of serving others in the church, answering the call of our brothers and sisters when they need us.
A vision is given to a godly Gentile (10:1-8)
After raising Tabitha, Peter stayed in Joppa for some time, in the house of a tanner named Simon. For those who don’t know, the occupation of tanner has to do with preparing animal skins to make them into usable leather. This sets the stage for the next great step in salvation history.
Look at Chapter 10 verses 1 and 2. “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman army, in charge of a group of around 100 soldiers. Such centurions and their regiments would be stationed in cities throughout the Empire, taking up residence in the towns they were sent to. The town of Caesarea was also on the western coast of Israel, on the Mediterranean, but it was about 33 miles north of Joppa.
Cornelius was a Gentile; he was not Jewish, and not a convert to Judaism. However, these verses show that he was very pious man. Maybe because of the influence of the Jewish people he served, he worshiped one God and prayed regularly. Moreover, he showed his faith by good deeds, giving to the poor. Cornelius is such an important person in God’s history; he is the first Gentile that God chose to receive the gospel.
God gave Cornelius a vision of an angel. Let’s look at verses 3-6. “One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, ‘Cornelius!’ 4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. ‘What is it, Lord?’ he asked. The angel answered, ‘Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.’” With holy fear, Cornelius recognized the angel as a messenger of the Lord.
The angel tells us that Cornelius’ prayers and gifts were a “memorial offering” before God. It means that Cornelius’ works pleased God very much—they got God’s attention! Of course, we know that salvation is only by God’s grace. Nothing Cornelius did made him merit receiving the gospel. However, it’s also true that God often sends the blessing of the gospel to a prepared heart. It’s always worth it to live a holy and selfless life. It prepares the environment for God to do greater things. With his heart humbled before God and seeking after righteousness, Cornelius was well prepared to receive the gospel.
In the vision, the angel told Cornelius to send men to Joppa to bring Peter. We know it was so that Peter could deliver the gospel to Cornelius. Of course, the angel could have told the gospel to Cornelius himself. But this shows how God wants to use people to spread the gospel. It’s because the best testimony is not that of angels, but of a saved sinner like ourselves. Cornelius immediately and humbly obeyed the directions given to him in the vision, sending trustworthy people to get Peter.
Peter’s vision and challenge (10:9-23a)
The journey from Caesarea to Joppa took one full day. The next day, when Cornelius’ men were about to arrive, God sent another vision, this time to Peter. What was Peter doing? Verse 9 says he went up on the roof to pray. I heard that houses of that day were built with a flat place on the roof that you could climb up to when you needed some private time. Then verse 10 says that while Peter was praying, he got hungry, so he went down and asked for something to be cooked and then went back up. I love how this shows both Peter’s spirituality and his humanity. I believe God gave this vision to Peter while he was hungry on purpose, to really make him think and struggle. You know what they say about the way to a man’s heart…
What was the vision? Look at verses 11 and 12. “He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’” The Lord had prepared a meal of a different kind for Peter. This meat was still moving and wiggling around, so Peter would have to kill and cook it himself. But the real problem was that the sheet that was let down from heaven had all kinds of unclean animals on it, that is, animals that were forbidden for Jews to eat by the Law of Moses.
Most of us know that there are various dietary restrictions that given to the Israelites in the Old Testament, which many Jews today still observe; the most familiar one is the prohibition against eating pork. If you go to Leviticus Chapter 11, you can read a detailed description of the varieties of land, sea, and air animals as well as insects that the Israelites were and were not allowed to eat. Why did God give these rules anyway? Of course, the rules might be good for being healthy and avoiding various foodborne illnesses. I think my son Andrew got an unclean milkshake at Steak and Shake Friday evening, because he was throwing up all night long after that.
But I think the most important reason for these rules was spiritual. It was to train the Israelites to understand God’s holiness, making a distinction between pure and impure, holy and common. These clean and unclean food regulations became established rules for devout Jews through the centuries, becoming an integral part of their faith and culture. But here, the Lord said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat”…eat the unclean animals.
How did Peter respond to this command? Look at verse 14. “‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’” Peter was repulsed, like the first time M. Anastasia tried to feed me some Ukrainian sardines. This was one command that Peter could not stomach. It wasn’t just that the lizard buffet looked disgusting; the command to kill and eat went against Peter’s deepest cultural and even religious values. He could not understand why God would command him to seemingly break God’s own laws.
Why did the Lord give Peter a vision telling him to eat unclean animals? Simply put, it is because God wanted to teach Peter the life-giving power in the gospel. Look in verse 15 at God’s answer to Peter’s protest. “The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’” As we know, nothing is impossible for God. God’s power can make the unclean clean. In fact, this is the very power that’s expressed in the gospel. Jesus himself demonstrated this in healing a man who was covered in leprosy. The leper said, with great faith, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus touched the man, breaking through the barrier established by the law, and said, “I am willing. Be clean!” (Mk 1:40-42)
Now that in Christ, this power has come, there is no more need for ceremonial regulations about foods and washings and cooking methods. Because the gospel makes us truly clean in our inner selves, Paul could write: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…” (Ro 14:17) Thank God for his power to make sinners clean!
The vision and the words, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” were repeated three times, to drive the point home. But Peter did not really understand the vision at this point. While he was still thinking and struggling with the meaning of it, the Spirit spoke to him again. “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” (10:19b-20)
It was at that moment that the men from Cornelius came to the front gate of Simon the Tanner’s house, and they called out asking if Simon called Peter was there. Peter went down and asked them what they wanted. Look at verse 22. “The men replied, ‘We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.’” The men gave their best recommendation about Cornelius. But Peter would have immediately realized that these men, and Cornelius who sent them, were Gentiles.
I bet it was at this moment that the meaning of the vision began to dawn on Peter. The Lord did not really care if Peter could eat a snake or a centipede. The vision was about food but about welcoming the Gentiles as brothers and sisters into the church. Even more than certain animals, many Jews considered the people of the Gentile nations to be unclean. They would not enter a Gentile’s house, would not invite a Gentile into their own house, or eat together with a Gentile. That explains why, up to this moment, no one in the church had even considered preaching the gospel to a non-Jew. There was a kernel of truth behind this prejudice, however. People who are lost in their sin, who have no knowledge of God and no relationship with him, are truly unclean. Nonetheless, at the end of the vision of the sheet, the Lord instructed Peter to not hesitate to travel with the Gentiles who had come to him. Accepting Gentiles was the real frog that Peter had to swallow.
What does “Get up, Peter, kill and eat” mean to us? God does not really care what we do or don’t eat, apart from exercising good stewardship of our bodies. We don’t have to eat bugs and snakes if we don’t want to. What God cares about is human beings. In the name of Christ, God wants us to accept people of all nations, languages, and tribes—even ones who seem uncivilized, ill-mannered, or otherwise unclean to us. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Look at verse 23. “Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.” Do you see what a great change this shows in Peter? He was beginning to get on Jesus’ wavelength. Overcoming all his prejudice, he invited Gentiles in, and together they ate the delicious Kosher lunch that was being cooked.
The gospel comes to the Gentiles (10:23b-48)
After letting his guests get refreshed and rested, the next day Peter set out for Caesarea with Cornelius’ men. In the meantime, at his house, Cornelius had called together all of his relatives and close friends. It shows his great spiritual thirst, and that he understood the value of the opportunity to hear the word of God. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. I bet Peter was rarely honored as God’s servant like this by his own people. But Peter refused to accept the bow, saying “I am only a man myself.” This is a very significant saying because it shows that now Peter views all human beings as equal before God. Their backgrounds and careers were very different, but Peter and this Gentile are both just men struggling to live before God.
Verse 27 says, “While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people.” Maybe it was at this moment that it dawned on Peter that he had entered a house full of Gentiles. Peter was honest in saying that this was a very unusual state of affairs for him. In verse 28 he said to them, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” The Lord was leading Peter to overcome his prejudice one step at a time. He had learned that he must not assume anyone was unclean based on their nationality or background. Then Peter asked why he had been sent for, and Cornelius told him about the vision he had received three days earlier.
Look at verse 33. Cornelius 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.” Wow, what a well-prepared audience! If someone came up to you on the street and said, “Okay, I’m ready to hear the message God gave you for me,” would you know what to say? As far as the passage says, Peter was never told anything specific to tell Cornelius. But Peter already knew what message to give; it was the same message Jesus had commanded him to preach from the beginning: the gospel. Peter was prepared to give the reason for his hope (1Pe 3:15)
Peter started by sharing that he himself had had a great spiritual breakthrough. Look at verses 34 and 35. “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.’” To us it may seem obvious. Of course God does not show favoritism—he is perfectly just! But the point is that human beings sometimes need a lot of work to come out of their human prejudices and favoritism. Just consider the events in this passage. Up until this point no believer had even considered preaching the gospel to a non-Jew. The Lord had to really work on Peter to get him over that hump. This shows that to use us to the full extent for his work, God has to bring us out of all kinds of prejudices like this, sometimes over a long period of time.
So I should confess my own favoritism. Sometimes when I was doing Bible study with college students, I would show favoritism toward students who were arts or sciences majors like me. I assumed that students who were business or law or politics majors were not truth-seeking enough to really know the gospel deeply. But then when I began to know more businesspeople personally, I found that they had a way of thinking that I hadn’t imagined and that I could learn a lot from. So I had to broaden my heart to see that God’s kingdom needs all kinds.
Peter then proceeded to preach the gospel to Cornelius and everyone gathered at his house, following the same pattern of our written gospels: starting from John the Baptist, then Jesus’ baptism and anointing, his ministry of healing and doing good. Then Peter told about Jesus’ death on a cross and resurrection on the third day. Peter confirmed himself as a witness of all this. He told about Jesus’ mission command to them to testify about what they had seen. Peter told about God’s exaltation of the Risen Christ, appointing him judge of the living and the dead.
The last part of the gospel message is the gospel invitation, or offer of grace. Let’s read verse 43 together. “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This offer speaks to our deepest need—forgiveness of sins. When Peter said “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness,” maybe it was the first time he really meant the word “everyone”. This was the word of God through which Gentiles also could believe and be saved.
Verse 44 says that while Peter was still speaking these words, suddenly the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message, and they began speaking in tongues and praising God. The other disciples with Peter were really shocked. It was probably not even in their mental realm of possibility that God would send the Holy Spirit on uncircumcised people. But they could not protest that the first Gentile believers should not be baptized—God himself had shown his approval.
Today we saw how the door of the gospel was opened to the Gentiles. This event is very relevant to each of us personally, because we are all unclean Gentiles who were accepted and baptized with the Holy Spirit only because of God’s broad-hearted grace. This passage is also the beginning of the fulfillment of the third stage of Jesus’ promise from Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Also, in using Peter to open that door, Christ was keeping his personal promise to Peter, to give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 16:18-19) However, in order to keep that promise, Christ had to help Peter a lot until he could overcome his human favoritism. At the beginning of this passage, raising Tabitha from the dead, Peter seemed to have achieved the highest spiritual level we can imagine; and yet, we saw that there was still a lot Jesus had to teach him. What do we learn from this? As we earnestly look toward the fulfillment of the dreams and visions God has given us, we should be aware that maybe what God really has to do to fulfill that vision is to change us. Thank God that he is willing and able to do so. God is not done with us yet, as he was not done working in Peter. May God bless you to be used by the Spirit to open a new door!