In our recent overview of the Book of Acts we have been taking a survey of it’s structural foundation by noting the geographical spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). By approaching it this way, we are able to see the fulfillment of our Lord’s commission to His disciples just prior to His ascension to the right hand of the Father. Previously, we noted that the first seven chapters emphasized gospel proclamation among the Jews, which included those in Jerusalem, those from other nations who had come into Jerusalem, proselytes and converts to Judaism, and Hellenistic Jews. Then we saw how Stephen’s death outside of the city of Jerusalem symbolically represented the spread of the gospel as it was through his murder and the subsequent persecution of Christians that the gospel was scattered. Chapter 8 of Acts highlighted this spread, particularly through the ministry of Philip to the Samaritans, who had a long genealogical history of being “half-Jews” dating back to the Assyrian and Babylonian exile periods. After verifying this advance of the gospel, Peter leaves Jerusalem and beings an itinerant ministry in northwestern Judea, specifically Lydda and Joppa. It is in this latter city that we left off with what was about to be a miraculous advancement of the gospel light into the darkness of the pagan world.
When we recall that the Scriptures originally did not have chapter breaks, it makes transitional statements all the more significant. Acts 9, as we have seen, begins one of these transitions with a return to Saul, introduced previously with the approval of Stephen’s murder, now continuing to breathe threats against the church in Jerusalem. As we are aware, Saul’s conversion (Acts 9:3-22) led to his significant ministry among the Gentiles. However, the bridge between Jew and Gentile would not be through the ministry given to Paul, rather it would be by divine revelation given to Peter. His presence in Lydda, to heal Aeneas, and Joppa, to raise Dorcas from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit, were not coincidental. Rather it was providential as we noted last time. God had a plan that he was unfolding in order to make a revelation to Peter that Gentiles were not common but were instead made clean by God.
While Peter’s ministry in Joppa was blessed by the Lord, “many believed in the Lord”, God was orchestrating gospel expansion in a town 30 miles to the north. We pick this up in Acts chapter 10 at the town of Caesarea with a man named Cornelius, a Centurian in the Roman army. In other words, a gentile. An angel of God comes to him in a vision and tells him to go and find Peter in Joppa. While the men from Cornelius are traveling, an exercise of faith and obedience by both parties, Peter himself experiences a vision. In his vision, from Acts 10:10-20, Peter is shown a great sheet descending up on the four corners of the earth in which were all kinds of animals. A voice is then heard by him saying, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter, holding to ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant (Leviticus 11, et.al.), responds by saying that he has never eaten anything that is common or unclean. This initial push back at the direction of God to eat something that was considered ceremonially unclean is reminiscent of Ezekiel 4:9-15. There, Ezekiel was specifically being commissioned as a prophet to the House of Israel, not “to a people of foreign speech and a hard language.”
Returning to Peter’s vision he is subsequently told not to call anything that God has made clean, common. He is then shown the vision two more times. As Peter contemplates the meaning of the vision, the men sent from Caesarea by Cornelius arrive. Consider for a moment how God had orchestrated these events such that men travelling by horse, chariot, or foot could arrive 30 miles away at the precise time that Peter’s vision ends. At this exact moment, the Holy Spirit speaks to Peter and tells him that three men are looking for him, thereby preparing the way of acceptance of the men and their request. We ought of course keep in mind again that they are Gentiles and would have been considered ceremonially unclean. At this revelation, Peter is told to rise and meet the men. Their meeting was as follows:
And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” 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.” 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.Act 10:21-23
Again, it is significant to note that these men are Roman gentiles and that the Jewish culture of the first century would have considered them unclean. To converse with them is one thing, to invite them in to be guests is quite another. The following day Peter accompanies the men on the journey from Joppa to Caesarea to the house of Cornelius. After some back-and-forth conversation as each try to figure out the purpose for their meeting, finally Peter proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ and its inclusion to the Gentiles.
So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 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.Acts 10:34-43
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, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 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. 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. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter’s opening words express his understanding and application of the vision that God had given him in showing no partiality between peoples. Additionally, we see that the commission given by our Lord has been and is still being followed out by His apostles as they are “witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem”. Reading this and combining it with what we saw from Philip’s ministry in Samaria and now the opening of the apostle’s gospel ministry to the Gentiles we can indeed see that what our Lord spoke in Acts 1:8 was commanded and is being fulfilled in real time.
Returning to Caesarea, after Peter speaks, we have a second Pentecost like event as the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word. The first Pentecost, as we recall, occurred in Jerusalem likewise as Peter preached. But there, as the Spirit fell upon them, were representative Jews and proselytes from multiple surrounding nations, which we concluded was a preview of the gospel’s geographical advance into Gentile territory. Here, we this second mini-Pentecost and have the fulfillment of that expectation as the Spirit falls on Gentiles in the presence of awestruck Jews, “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.” Acts 10:45 All present recognized that through the testifying of the Spirit, the dividing wall of hostility had been broken down in Christ and there was now unity to be found in the Holy Spirit. Following this, all of those who heard, believed, and were filled with the Spirit were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Brothers and sisters, those of non-Jewish backgrounds and decent, this is how the gospel advanced to reach us today. Our Lord commanded and commissioned it, then orchestrated the events that would bring the gospel spread to the gentiles, through persecution, through divine revelation, and through His servants. He declares the beginning and the end.
In our next, and likely final post from this series on the structural foundation of Acts, we will observe the apostolic response to this Gentile inclusion and then catch up with the one whom God had ordained to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.