“And he shewed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter” (Acts 11:13).
by Micah Hess
The faithful witnessing and evangelical work of the early church added thousands to the church (Acts 2:41, 4:4, 5:14). But this early success of preaching the gospel also brought intense persecution from Jewish religious leaders, which in turn sent Christians fleeing from Jerusalem. As they were forced to flee, they brought with them the gospel message to new cities and their people. Therefore, the very persecution that sought to extinguish Christianity was at least partially responsible for its reaching new corners of the ancient Jewish community.
The surge in new converts set the stage for even more explosive growth of the church, as Cornelius is introduced in Acts 10:1. He was the ideal candidate to answer the call of God and to be given the holy Spirit, opening The Way to the Gentiles. Cornelius was unusual for a centurion because he was both devout and supported the local Jewish community through the giving of alms. During the ninth hour of the Jewish day (3 PM), Cornelius received a vision. An angel of the Lord told him that he should send men to the city of Joppa and look for Peter. Cornelius obeyed and sent men to find Peter.
Get up Peter
Peter was staying in Joppa with a tanner named Simon. The next day, Peter was given a vision directing him in the upcoming events. While praying on a rooftop in Joppa, Peter saw a vision of a great sheet being lowered by four corners to the ground. Upon the sheet he saw many animals considered unclean by the Jews. Peter heard a voice say, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But his conscience would not let him. The voice continued, “What God hath cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:9-17 NASB). This vision was repeated to Peter three times and his mind was greatly perplexed. He could not reconcile this vision with scriptures that identified these animals as unclean and unfit to eat (Leviticus 11:20-25, Deuteronomy 14:4-20). While thinking about the vision, Jesus, through the holy Spirit, told Peter to go with three men, without doubting, who had just arrived at the door of the home.
The messengers sent by Cornelius testified that Cornelius was “divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you” (Acts 10:22 NASB). Peter must have recognized that the timing of his vision, the instructions of the Spirit, and the request by Cornelius, were no coincidence. Hence, when he arrived at Cornelius’ house he did not hesitate to enter, but proclaimed to the Gentile home, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28 NASB). Jesus was orchestrating new horizons for Peter’s ministry, and Peter obeyed. His faith would expand in a new direction. Peter had already used the first key to the Kingdom that unlocked the door to the high calling for Jews at Pentecost. Now, he would use the second key to unlock the same door for the Gentiles!
The visions of Cornelius and Peter showed that God was now accepting Gentiles into Christ (Acts 10:34, 35). The grace and mercy of God was now available to all people, something Peter would not have known before. Perhaps a final assurance came while Peter shared the Gospel to the Gentiles gathered in the home of Cornelius and witnessed the holy Spirit fall upon all who were listening. Upon experiencing this proof, Peter commanded that those newly baptized by God with the holy Spirit should be baptized also with water. “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the holy Spirit just as we did” (Acts 10:47 NASB).
But Peter’s work of bringing Gentiles into the fold of Christianity was not over yet. Such a wide departure from Jewish norms would cause dissension. Thus when Peter arrived in Jerusalem, the first event recorded is of him justifying his association with Gentiles, introducing them to Jesus, and baptizing them (Acts 11:4). Peter recounted the events of chapter 10, emphasizing that only God controlled who received the baptism of the holy Spirit. He described the voice he heard saying, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”
Peter added that Cornelius also had a vision, telling him to reach out to Peter specifically, in order that his household would be saved (Acts 11:14). Peter pointed out that the holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his company just as it had fallen upon the disciples gathered at Pentecost. If God decided the Gentiles should receive the holy Spirit, who were they to stand in God’s way? No one comes into Christ without being drawn by the Father (John 6:44).
The Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven
The baptism of Cornelius was much more important than for just him as an individual. When Peter witnessed the baptism of the holy Spirit upon Cornelius, he directed that they should also be baptized with water (Acts 10:47, 48). God graciously provided a clear sign to the Christian community that the door was now open for all to enter the body of Christ. Knowing with certainty that Gentiles were now baptized with the holy Spirit carried the same implications for Gentile believers that it had for Jewish disciples gathered at Pentecost. They were Christian brethren.
At the Mount of Olives, Jesus instructed his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they had received the holy Spirit. Then they were to be witnesses for Christ to all nations. The manifestations of the holy Spirit to the disciples confirmed other things too.
(1) They marked the acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice on behalf of the church.
(2) They indicated that having faith in the merit of Jesus’ sacrifice for them meant that they could now be considered children of God (John 1:12).
Such a visible and powerful affirmation of God’s love and acceptance was vital to establish and build faith in the early church. God no longer dealt exclusively with the Jewish nation. This precisely aligned with Jesus’ words to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19 NASB). The keys that Jesus spoke of described the work Peter would do during his ministry. Peter would be God’s instrument to unlock the door of the high calling to two groups of people. First, to the Jews at Pentecost when Peter gave his first sermon. Second, to the Gentiles when he welcomed Cornelius into the fellowship. By presenting Cornelius with the witness of the gospel message, Peter unlocked that door for all Gentiles of faith.
God’s exclusive dealings with the Jewish people seemed to make many Jewish leaders numb to the grace of God. Their faith deteriorated, from depending on God’s grace and special treatment to demanding that it continue. The importance of heart condition had been lost on many in Jewish religious circles.
Justification by Faith
The Apostle Paul confirms the importance of a Christian identity that supersedes inherited cultural norms and human values. “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26-29 ESV). Faith in Christ became the foundation of God’s acceptance.
The Christian is to conform to the example of Christ, letting God’s holy Spirit develop them in Christ. They become “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29 NASB). In the Gospel Age, the opportunity for a relationship with God is open to all who express faith.
The individual nature of how that Christian experience unfolds can be seen in Acts chapter twelve. Here, two extremes played out. King Herod began a new round of persecuting the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword, and then placed Peter in jail. Such losses must have weighed heavily upon the brethren. Acts 12:5 tells us that the church was not silent in their grief. They prayed fervently for Peter.
After James’ death, Peter probably expected little mercy from Herod. But God, in His wisdom and mercy, chose this moment to display His power. An angel was sent to Peter’s side, who led him out of prison. This experience towered, not only over Peter but over the rest of the Church as well. Though most brethren will not experience the bars of their prison chambers open, they still have every opportunity to experience the miracle of God’s grace as He breaks the chains of sin holding them as prisoners.
Though we do not look for outward manifestations of tongues of fire or of violent rushing winds at our baptisms, the baptism of the holy Spirit is as important for members of the body of Christ today as it was then. Today, perhaps a greater emphasis should be placed on perceiving and acknowledging the work of the holy Spirit in us than earlier in the Gospel Age. Experiencing the power of God working through His
Spirit is the greatest confirmation we need or should ever desire. It confirms our sonship, and it becomes the source of our identity, an anchor of our eternal hope.
Knowing that we are accepted of God should help us recognize the futility of seeking fickle affirmations from our society and culture. Our only truth and identity is to experience the fullness and completeness of our relationship with God through Christ. When we see the holy Spirit work in our lives and when we see God open our minds to biblical truths, we recognize the baptism of the holy Spirit, which Peter helped unlock for us.