The disciples of Jesus were Jewish, as was Jesus. When Jesus commanded them to go out into the world- into Africa, Asia, Europe and preach to them the Gospel , the disciples assumed that he meant only to Jews! The disciples literally couldn’t fathom a non-Jew accepting Jesus as the Messiah and savior! They didn’t even think about going to non-Jewish nations because most nations at that time had many gods that they worshipped. If you study Greek or Roman history, these cultures had pantheons of gods. The concept of One God was unique to Jews. They believed in the one, Almighty God. So the disciples at that time simply couldn’t imagine these cultures accepting Jesus as their savior.
Now, we have an Old Testament and a New Testament. The New Testament doest really begin until the Book of Acts- after the completion of the first four Gospels. I know that many people say, “No, Pastor Frank, my bible begins with Matthew,” but I say, “No. The new covenant, the new promise of God didn’t start until Jesus was born, died on the cross, rose again and then ascended into heaven. That is the beginning of the new Covenant. So the first four books of the New Testament are actually part of the Old Testament. The beginning of the new covenant starts with Acts.”
Now, the story we will read today is very powerful because it tells of the first non-Jew to receive salvation from Jesus. It concerns a man named, Cornelius, an Italian centurion. Although he wasn’t Jewish, he believed in the One God. And of course, he wasn’t yet a Christian. He hadn’t heard about Jesus or the salvation he offered. But Cornelius was a very religious man. Being ‘religious’ does not mean you are saved. But he was trying to do the right thing. He was devout, he prayed, he reverenced God, and he gave generously. And that caught God’s attention. Let’s read:
10 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. 3 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.”
(Have you ever heard of a ‘memorial offering’? A memorial is used to remember the power of God. One kind of memorial is when you offer your tithes at church. One time, my wife, Jeannie and I listened to a sermon about a particular kind of memorial offering- an offering that was given specifically to pray for the salvation of someone else. Afterwards, Jeannie told me that she would give such an offering for a family member of hers. The very next day, this same family member called her and within a week, she had accepted Christ as her savior!)
7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 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.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three[a] men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
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.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.
Cornelius was worshiping Peter as a god!
26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 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. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 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.”
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[b] and praising God.
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
You must understand, the disciples were shocked at this. Even the Gentiles were shocked by this. They said, “Wow! We are the chosen people- but God loves you too! ” This shook their world view! And now, they were invited to eat with these Gentiles!
This is when the real trouble began for the new church. When other Jews heard that Peter had eaten with the ‘unclean, Godless heathens’, they became upset. They didn’t care that people had been saved! They didn’t care that lives were changed! They cared that they ate bacon! All the fuss was over eating bacon!
This is exactly how ‘religious’ people are. Many ‘religious’ people get mad at other Christians because they’re doing something that they want to do! So, the Jews who were criticizing Peter were being ‘religious’, caring only about the old law- despite the momentous, miraculous thing that had happened! God gave Gentiles the Holy Spirit! He intended salvation for everyone, not just the Jews! But eating bacon was the only thing they saw!
Now, again, these Jews had a Jewish world view: They simply couldn’t imagine that Gentiles could or should receive the Word of God. So, they thought all Gentiles needed to become Jews first- they needed to observe all the rituals, laws, sacrifices and festivals first. They even needed to be circumcised (something no adult male wants to hear!) first. Only afterwards could they receive Jesus as their savior. So they were shocked and upset that Peter had baptized them with water before they had done all these things.
And yet, Peter told them that God had filled baptized them with the Holy Spirit before they had done all these things, not him! What choice did he have but to also baptize them with water? Let’s read:
Now the apostles and the brothers[a] who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party[b] criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Here are some conclusions we can make from this story:
I: If You Want to Hear from God You Need to Pray.
You need to spend a lot of time in prayer with God. Not just say, “God, I need this, I need that!”. You need quiet time with God. You need to listen to what he has to say. Cornelius prayed constantly and he gave generously to the poor- and God heard him. And blessed him.
II. Even Religious People Need to be Saved!
Being a Christian does not mean being ‘religious’. Being ‘religious’ doesn’t mean you are a Christian. Sitting in a pew on Sunday at church doesn’t mean you are saved. Cornelius was very devoted and very ‘religious’, but that didn’t save him. It was his prayer and his generous giving to the poor that made God hear him- and thus provide for his salvation through the Word of Jesus. God loves generous giving- why? Because God is generous himself. “For God so loved the world that he…gave his only begotten Son!”
III. God does not show Partiality.
I tell people all the time about the breakthroughs and miracles in my life. Many times, they respond by saying, “Yeah, but you are a pastor…” This always bothers me. God has no respect for positions or titles! This past weekend, we had amazing testimonials from people in our church. I am always amazed at how a person who has been a Christian for 50 years can get cancer and God chooses to not heal him and another person can have walked in from the street, prayed and then became healed of the same cancer! I will go to my grave with that question on my mind. But it’s clear that God doesn’t show partiality.
IV. Moving Out of Our Comfort Zone is Not Ever Comfortable.
We have had prayers in our church for healing. Sometimes people come up and ask me, “What if God doesn’t heal me or them?” I say, “What if God does heal them?” So I always go into it with the belief that he will. It’s never easy to go out of your comfort zone. The Jews weren’t comfortable at first with the changes God had made to their old covenant. But God showed them that his New Covenant was his will- and that it was better that what existed beforehand.