The Great Shift


Introduction; Peter has been operative in two powerful manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work in giving definition and form to the transitional authority of the apostles in establishing the gospel of Christ as God’s fulfillment of his purpose in this world. A remarkable healing and resuscitation from death helped establish the apostolic ministry in that role. In this lesson, the even greater work of conversion, resurrection from spiritual death to spiritual life, comes to the Gentiles when Peter preaches the gospel to them.

I. God Sent Cornelius a Vision – 10:1-8

A. Cornelius was head of a cohort derived from Italy, made of Italians, volunteers (unconscripted) as guards for the Procurator stationed in Caesarea. He was a man under authority, assigned to a task of important interest to the stability of the empire, and in authority over a group of well-trained Roman patriots.

B. Cornelius probably was very similar to the centurion described in Luke 7:1-10, who had built a synagogue for the Jews, loved their nation and had won their respect and love. Looking for something beyond the gross superstitions of Romans paganism, the spiritual monotheism of the Jewish scriptures attracted him. From verse 28 and 34 we may conclude, however, that he was not a full proselyte and remained uncircumcised. Nevertheless, he clearly believed in calling upon the God of Israel, much in the spirit of Jesus’ description in John 4:21-24.

C. Again, God used an angel, the appearance of which struck terror into Cornelius, as a messenger. This creature had such clear superiority of glory in his appearance that the centurion called him, “Lord.” Such an appointment was designed to seal the certainty that these following events were under the control of divine providence, according to divine purpose, effected by divine power, and came with incontrovertible evidence. A major shift in the nature of the messianic reign in the kingdom of God was in the process of coming to fruition.

D. Nothing could be clearer than the pronouncement that God had heard and kept in mind (“as a memorial”) the prayers of Cornelius and had regarded his alms. The desire to know the true God, implanted by the calling of the Spirit, had reached the moment of ripeness in God’s plan.

E. He received specific instructions to bring Simon Peter from Joppa and immediately sent two servants and a “devout” soldier, evidently one who shared with Cornelius the search for personal knowledge of the one true God.

F. God prepares people to receive the gospel in a variety of ways. Saul of Tarsus was hostile to the gospel message and those who adhered to it. Cornelius humbly probed for an increasing knowledge of how his desire for true worship and how his yearning for a cleansed conscience could be satisfied. Both, however, had knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and an expectation of a Messiah. The one believed that Messaih was for his  peculiar people only; the other hoped for inclusion with the true people of God.

II. God Sent Peter a Vision – 10:9-16.  God gave special preparation to Peter for the necessary role he would play in this shift of covenantal arrangements.. This series of visions occurred the next day at noon.

A. While Peter waited for a meal to be prepared according to the dietary requirements of the Old Testament, he went up on the roof and “fell into a trance.” This vision presented to Peter something from heaven.

B. Coming down from heaven in a great sheet were living things that Peter was commanded to “kill and eat.” These ceremonially unclean animals, reptiles, and birds, did not ascend from below, or creep to him from the earth, but were let down from heaven, in something like a large four-cornered sheet, as if it included all the dimensions of the earth in it. God is the creator of all things; everything originates from him. Compare this vision with the doctrinal affirmation of Paul in 1 Timothy 4:1-5, where Paul said, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

C. Peter considered the ceremonial law as having priority over the words from heaven. Once before in Matthew 16:22 he had sought to correct the Lord and received a severe rebuke, “Get behind me Satan.” The juxtaposition of these words is the ultimate incongruity: “Not so [By no means], Lord.” Just as the crucifixion of the Christ, the Son of the living God was a hard pill to swallow, so would the removal of the prohibitions of the ceremonial law prove puzzling and an idea to be resisted. The ceremonial had served its purpose. It showed that the people of God must be a separated people and that sin could only be forgiven by a perfect sacrifice. Jesus fulfilled all of that in his gospel ministry rendering the ceremonial law no longer relevant.

D. This happened three times, with the interpretation provided that would segue seamlessly into the next thing Peter was asked to do. What God has made clean, do not call common, that is, of the world and outside the sphere of acceptability for pure religion.

III. God Puts Peter and Cornelius Together – 10:17-34

A. While Peter was troubled about the reason for such a vision and what it entailed for him, the men sent almost 24 hours earlier arrived at the house where Peter was staying. The Holy Spirit told Peter to “accompany them without hesitation.” He was not to reason with God about this as he had in the vision of the ceremonially unclean animals. This shift of covenantal configuration called for prompt obedience, not for hesitation. Peter would have another moment of hesitation on this issue, but not at this point (Galatians 2:11-14).

B. The men looking for Peter tell Peter why they have come, in response to the directions of an angel. Peter, prepared for such an event by dropping the category of “unclean,” asked them to stay the night as his guests. They started their journey the next day and on the following day reached Caesarea. God could have dropped Peter down at Caesarea like he moved Philip to Azotus after baptizing the eunuch (Acts 8:40) but he kept to the difficulties of travel and the hours spent in  the company of these Gentiles. He would have learned more about Cornelius and also had time to reflect on the doctrinal meaning of these partner-visions. Throughout Scripture we find that doctrinal advance often is painful and requires a providential arrangement of difficult circumstances. So through the history of the church, the corporate grasp of a more full and coherent grasp of Scripture often involves conflict, division, suffering, and misunderstanding.

C. Both Peter and Cornelius recite the leading elements of the divine intervention that brought them to this point of personal contact. Peter’s understanding of the vision has matured and he stated plainly, “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” At the conclusion of Cornelius’s account he stated, “Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” Within the space of about four days, God has placed a Gentile prepared by grace to receive a presentation of the gospel; he has prepared a Jew, the leading apostle, to bring him the message that he must have if his searching is to end in a conversion to Christ.

D. Note the attitudes expressed by the two men as a result of God’s working. Peter clearly consents to their equality before God, an Cornelius recognized the generous spirit with which Peter approached this call.

IV. Peter Preaches in the house of Cornelius. Peter’s message as reported here shows the key elements of the gospel.

A. Its universality show that it deals with a moral reality in all persons and is not based on mere positive commands and ceremonies. Words like “no partiality,” “in every nation,” “who fears him and does what is right.” These ideas include all of mankind, all who are born of Adam.

B. Though the redemptive event itself was purely historical, its transforming power is communicated through the spoken word, summarized as “peace through Jesus Christ.”

C. Jesus Christ acted as a man under the power of the Holy. In that power he did the things that constitute justifying righteousness.

1.All his actions were good, morally upright and without any sinful flaw.

2. He showed that as the anointed one he had power over all disease, even those inflicted by demonic forces.

3. He experienced the presence of God throughout this ministry, all his words and actions being witnessed by those that went with him on virtually every tour.

D. In spite of his goodness, he was put to death as a man cursed of God (“hanging him on a tree”), but, though judged so wretchedly by men, God verified his goodness and the efficacy of his death by raising him from the dead.

E. He appeared to selected witnesses after his resurrection. In those days they had such conversations and events with him that the reality of his resurrection was established beyond challenge and his instruction to them set the foundation for the preaching of Jesus as the Messiah based on his fulfillment of the Old Testament.

F. It is not by mere historical interest that these events are told, but on the basis of the authoritative command of Christ himself, because God has appointed him, as the Messiah, “rejected by men, but chosen of God and precious” (1 Peter 2:4) as the one that will judge all flesh. Though he has the sovereign prerogative to judge all flesh as the Son in the triune God, he is “appointed by God”, that is, by eternal covenantal arrangement, to judge in light of his being rejected by men, but having brought in perfect righteousness in human nature. His rejection shows the absolutely pervasive effects of sin in human nature and his righteousness shows the perfect equity and beauty of God’s moral law. Judgment, therefore, in the context of why some receive eternal life and others eternal torment, has been committed to the Son whose qualifications relate to his work as the “one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” He knows and has experienced in his own person how the root of sin and its various manifestations rise in perfect rage against holiness and all the requirements of God’s law and so can pronounce judgment as one who stands within the human race. He knows also those given him by the Father for whom he has shed his blood in a propitiatory sacrifice; for them he sanctified himself and for them he lived and died (John 17:1-3, 10-11, 18-19).

G.  The prophets bear witness; thus this message is consistent with the development of revelation through the centuries. The witness they bear focuses on faith in the Messiah in order to receive forgiveness of sins. “Through his name” means on the basis of the status and rights he has obtained by his work as a faithful high priest.

V. The Gentiles Believe

A. “While Peter was saying these things” –As he completed his narrative and announced that forgiveness of sins came through faith, the Spirit brought about a conversion of all the Gentiles who heard this message. We note two corollary truths from this event. One, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Consent to the gospel cannot come if it is not heard. Two, God will arrange through the wise and powerful directions of his providence to bring the gospel to all his elect.

B. The manifestation of tongues came as the immediate and clear evidence that the same Spirit that converted Jews at Pentecost now has done the same work among the Gentiles. “The gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.”

C. Their baptism followed the clear evidence of having received the Spirit. None but those who give evidence of having believed by the work of the Spirit should be baptized. All of those who do indeed give clear evidence of having believed by evidence the Spirit’s work should be baptized. That baptism is the profession of their union with Christ and his saving work. There was a necessity of this evidence coming with visible manifestation, uniformly manifested across the spectrum of believing groups, thus the presence of tongues. That way, however, which also had a subservient revelatory function (a kind of prophecy) in the age of new covenant revelation, has given way to evidence that is observable in moral and rational transformation—a new life of love and holiness and a new way of thinking (1 John 5:1-12).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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