Like many biblical events, the revival in the house of Cornelius—a Gentile—no longer surprises us. But when Jerusalem church leaders finally grasped what had happened, “They fell silent” (Acts 11:18). The early church struggled to grasp just how completely Jesus breaks down barriers. The events of Acts 10 are so important that Luke repeats the story in Acts 11.
Gentile believers today are outsiders who have been welcomed in. As we understand Acts 10:34–11:18, we can better trust in and imitate the unconditional love God shows toward other outsiders.
What Happened in This Story?
The story of how salvation came to the house of Cornelius is told in three stages.
Here is Peter’s main point: Jesus is good news to everyone who believes. “God shows no partiality” based on ethnicity, gender, or any other natural characteristic (Acts 10:34). Instead, “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34, emphasis added). Forgiveness of sins is for “everyone who believes”(Acts 10:43, emphasis added). The only requirement for new life is faith in Jesus who “is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36, emphasis added).
Here’s what Peter wants Gentiles to know about Jesus: First, Jesus was anointed by God through John the Baptist to do good and destroy evil. Jesus shows what God stands for. Second, the Jews killed Jesus but God made him alive, proving his resurrection through the testimony of eyewitnesses. Third, since Jesus will come again to judge, everyone must be cleared of their sin through repentance. This is the gospel.
Peter’s message seemed new; to many, it seemed wrong. So how did God authenticate his promise of salvation to everyone who believes in Jesus?
The Holy Spirit Baptized Gentile Believers
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). The Jewish believers were amazed. What had happened earlier to Jews was now happening to Gentiles—new believers were “speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:46). Having become members of God’s church, Peter next “commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). Of course, joining the church wasn’t the end of their training. Peter remained with them, catching them up on thousands of years of redemptive history and teaching them how they should now live.
The Church Agreed with God’s Judgment
Instead of rejoicing at the news of a Gentile revival, the Jerusalem conservatives first focused on Peter’s violation of ceremonial laws. They needed convincing that God was more gracious than they supposed.
So Peter repeated his story. The evidence is strong that the Jewish church should welcome Gentiles. First, apart from God’s sovereign guidance, Peter and Cornelius couldn’t have even met. Second, Jesus has fulfilled his promise to baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11). Should anyone hinder Jesus’s work to expand his church by accepting believing Gentiles? Peter’s hearers were stunned. But they had to agree: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
What Does This Story Call Us to Do?
Be Reconciled to God
What the Jews forgot—by stressing their difference from Gentiles—is that they are in the same messy lot as every other fallen person. There had been external advantages to being Jewish (Rom. 9:4). But Jewish people had to use those advantages to humble themselves and trust in Jesus or they would perish like Gentiles, only worse (Matt. 11:23–24).
This simple message of Jesus, which was brand new to Cornelius’ household, is familiar to many people today. But familiarity isn’t enough. We must receive forgiveness of sins by believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Be Reconciled to the Rest of God’s Family
Within the early church there was pressure to maintain a church membership A-list and B-list. But Peter was sure that wasn’t right; could anyone “withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Some Jerusalem churchmen would have; they wanted to recognize as church members only converts who had gained the “covenantal ‘badges’ of Judaism—circumcision, Torah (diet, calendar), and temple. But when God himself welcomes Gentile outsiders, cleansing them for his holy community, through faith in Jesus, who dares to stand in his way?”[i] (see Acts 11:17). God shows no favoritism (10:34). Neither may we.
Instead, we should deliberately embrace people who are different from us, or unknown to us in the church. We should not expect—nor even desire—Christian uniformity. Some were circumcised in the early church; others weren’t. Some ate kosher. Others ate anything. Praise the Lord! We are called to live as a body that actually requires differences (1 Cor. 12:20). So resist participating in a cast system in Jesus’s church. Peter said that it was considered improper for Jews to “make common cause with a foreigner.”[ii] But within the church there are no foreigners, no one we may avoid or look down on. Peter set a good example by saying to Cornelius: “I too am a man” (10:26). Peter was just a fellow man in Christ. The Spirit told Peter to go to the Gentiles “making no distinction” (Acts 10:12). Today too, we must love our whole church family, those who are members also of God’s family. Will we?
[i] Dennis Johnson, The Message of Acts, 125.
[ii] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, 208.