This story about Cornelius and Peter has a lot to say about the winds of racism that are blowing on the University campus these days. They have a lot to say about our natural tendency to think of other ethnic groups besides our own as unclean and common and corrupt. They have a lot to say about world missions and our commitment as evangelical Christians to take the gospel of Christ to every ethnic group in the world so that people may be saved from the coming wrath of God. So I hope you will listen carefully and help me unpack the powerful truth of this story for our lives.
The Story About Cornelius and Peter
Let me try to sum up the whole story for us. Cornelius is a Gentile, not a Jew. But he feared God as best he knew him and he prayed and he gave alms and walked in an upright way (10:2, 22). God sent an angel to him and told him to send for Peter to hear what he has to say.
At about the same time God gave Peter a vision of animals that the Jews regarded as unclean because of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. The voice from heaven said, "Rise and eat." But Peter protested that they were unclean. And the voice came back with these decisive words in verse 15: "What God has cleansed you must not call common!"
In other words, with the coming of Jesus into the world and with the final cleansing sacrifice of Christ now offered and with the command to take the gospel to all ethnic groups in the world now given, the old ceremonial laws about foods are lifted and that barrier to the Gentile world is removed.
And so Peter's vision has two points: the food laws are fulfilled and ended in Jesus (Mark 7:19), and the people they kept you separate from (the nations, the Gentiles) are not to be considered unclean or common.
Cornelius Sends for Peter
God makes this clear to Peter right away, because while he is still pondering the meaning of the vision on the roof in Joppa, three Gentiles from Cornelius knock at his door. The fact that verse 16 says the vision about unclean animals happened three times and verse 19 says that three men (Gentile men, ordinarily thought unclean) are at the door is no accident. Peter is supposed to get the message: people that you have formerly regarded as common and unclean and separated from your fellowship are not to be viewed that way. Go with these men.
So Peter goes with them to Caesarea. There he finds Cornelius ready with his whole household to hear the gospel. Peter preaches, they repent (11:18), and the Holy Spirit falls on them (11:14) and they are saved (11:14). After Missions Week I will give a whole message to what Peter preached and why it was that the Holy Spirit fell the way he did.
Was Cornelius Already Saved?
But today I want to ask two questions that are really pressing in this story. One is this: Was Cornelius already saved before Peter preached Christ to him? The reason this is so pressing is that verses 34–35 have led many to say that he was. This would have a big impact on the way we think about world missions.
Peter begins his sermon to the Gentiles at Cornelius' house like this: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." You can see how readers would easily conclude: Well, then, Cornelius was already accepted by God since verse 2 said that he feared God and prayed and gave alms. So Peter's visit just informed him of the acceptance and salvation that he already had. And so the conclusion is further drawn out: many people in all the unreached peoples of the world are truly born again and accepted by God and saved without hearing or believing in Christ.
So my first question is: Does verse 35 mean that Cornelius and people like him are already justified and reconciled to God and saved from the wrath of God? My second question assumes the answer to this first one and brings us to the very pointed applications of this story to racism and world missions. I save it and ask it after answering the first question.
Does verse 35 mean that Cornelius and those like him are already in God's family, justified, reconciled, saved? Is that Peter's point in saying this and Luke's point in writing it?
Four Reasons for Answering No
Let me give you four reasons from the text for answering NO.
1. Peter's Description in Acts 11:14
Acts 11:14 says that the message Peter brought was the way Cornelius was saved. Look at 11:13–14 where Peter tells the story of the angel's appearing to Cornelius: "He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household."
Notice two things. First, notice that the message is essential. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Then notice that the tense of the verb is future: " . . . a message by which you will be saved . . . " In other words, the message was not simply the informing of Cornelius that he already was saved—which is what some people say world evangelization is for. If he sends for Peter and hears the message and believes on the Christ of that message, then he WILL be saved. And if he does not, he won't be.
This surely is why the whole story is built around God's miraculously getting Cornelius and Peter together. There was a message that Cornelius needed to hear to be saved (vv. 22, 33).
So Acts 10:35 probably does not mean that Cornelius is already saved when it says that people in unreached ethnic groups who fear God and do right are acceptable to God. Cornelius had to hear the gospel message to be saved.
2. Peter's Declaration in Acts 10:43
Peter makes this point at the end of his sermon in 10:43. He brings the message to a close with these words: "To him [i.e., to Christ] all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
Forgiveness of sins is salvation. No one is saved whose sins against God are not forgiven by God. And Peter says that forgiveness comes through believing in Christ, and it comes through the name of Christ.
He does not say, "I am here to announce to you that those of you who fear God and do right are already forgiven." He says, "I am here so that you may hear the gospel and receive forgiveness in the name of Christ by believing in him." So again it is very unlikely that verse 35 means that Cornelius and his household were already forgiven for their sins before they heard the message of Christ.
3. What Devout Jews Need Elsewhere in Acts
Elsewhere in the book of Acts even those who are the most God-fearing and ethical, namely, the Jews, are told that they must repent and believe in order to be saved. The Jews at Pentecost were called "devout men" (2:5) like Cornelius was called a devout man (in 10:2). But Peter ended his message in Acts 2 by calling even devout Jews to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins (2:38). Same thing in 3:19 and 13:38–39.
So Luke is not trying to tell us in this book that devout, God-fearing people who practice what's right as best they know how are already saved and without any need of the gospel. The gospel got its start among the most devout people in the world, namely, the Jews. They had more advantages in knowing God than any of the other peoples of the earth. Yet they were told again and again: devoutness and works of righteousness and religious sincerity does not solve the problem of sin. The only hope is to believe on Jesus. It was true then, it is true today!
4. The Apostles' Reaction in Acts 11:18
The fourth reason for saying that verse 35 does not mean Cornelius and others like him are already saved is found in Acts 11:18. When the apostles hear Peter tell the story about Cornelius, their initial misgivings are silenced, Luke says, "And they glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life."
"Repentance unto life" means that their repentance led to eternal life. They did not already have eternal life. They received it when they heard the message about Christ and turned to believe and follow him.
So I conclude that Acts 10:35 does not mean that Cornelius was already saved because he was in some sense God-fearing and did many right and noble things. That's the answer to my first question.
What Is This "Acceptability" Before God?
The second is simply: What then does it mean when Peter says, "In every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him"? And what does this have to do with our racist tendencies and our ethnocentrism and our commitment to world evangelization?
All People Are Acceptable Candidates for Salvation?
My first thought was that what Peter means in verse 35 is what God meant in the vision about the unclean animals, namely, the lesson of verse 15: "What God has cleansed, you must not call common." But something stopped me and made me think again.
Look at verse 28. Peter is explaining to the Gentiles why he was willing to come and says, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean."
What this means is that Christians should never look down on a person from any race or ethnic group and say: they are unfit to hear the gospel from me. Or they are too unclean for me to go into their house to share the gospel. Or they are not worth evangelizing. Or they have too many offensive habits to even get near them.
But the phrase that makes verse 28 so powerful is the phrase "any man" or "any one": "God has shown me that I should not call any human being common or unclean." In other words, Peter learned from his vision on the housetop in Joppa that God rules no one out of his favor on the basis of race or ethnic origin or mere cultural distinctives or physical distinctives. "Common and unclean" meant rejected, despised, taboo. It was like leprosy.
And Peter's point here in verse 28 is that there is not one human being on the face of the earth that we should think about in that way. Not one. That's the amazing thing in this verse. Not one. Our hearts should go out to every single person whatever the color, whatever the ethnic origin, whatever the physical traits, whatever the cultural distinctives. Don't write off anybody. Don't snub anybody. Don't check them out like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan and then pass by on the other side. "God has shown me that I should not call any one—not one—common or unclean."
Not Simply a Matter of Clean and Unclean
Now that is not what Peter says in verse 35. This is what kept me from assuming that verse 35 simply meant: all people are acceptable as candidates for salvation, no matter their ethnic background. In verse 35 Peter says, "In every nation [note those words!] any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to God." Here he is not talking about every person like he was in verse 28. Here he is talking about some IN every nation. IN every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to God.
So the acceptability Peter has in mind here is something more, it seems, than merely not being common or unclean. That's everybody. Peter said, "Call NO ONE common or unclean." Here he says that only some in every nation fear God and do right. And these are acceptable to God.
So now we know two things verse 35 does NOT mean. (1) It does not mean that these God-fearing doers of good are saved. We saw four reasons why it can't mean that. And (2) it does not mean merely that they are acceptable candidates for evangelism (not common or unclean, not taboo), because verse 28 already said that's true of everybody, not just some. But verse 35 says that only some are God-fearing, doing what is right, and thus acceptable.
Somewhere in Between
So the meaning probably lies somewhere between these two: between being saved and being a touchable, lovable human candidate for evangelism.
Here's my suggestion. Cornelius represents a kind of unsaved person among an unreached people group who is seeking God in an extraordinary way. And Peter is saying that God accepts this search as genuine (hence "acceptable" in verse 35) and works wonders to bring that person the gospel.
I get this especially from verse 31 where Cornelius says that the angel said to him, "Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter." Notice: Your prayers have been heard . . . therefore send for Peter. This implies that the prayers were for God to send him what he needed in order to be saved.
So the fear of God that is acceptable to God in verse 35 is a true sense that there is a holy God, that we have to meet him some day as desperate sinners, that we cannot save ourselves and need to know God's way of salvation, and that we pray for it day and night and seek to act on the light we have. This is what Cornelius was doing. And God accepted his prayer and his groping for truth in his life (Acts 17:27), and worked wonders to bring the saving message of the gospel to him.
So there are really two lessons in this text for today. One is that no human being is common or unclean. None is to be spurned, shunned, rejected, despised because of his ethnic origin or race or culture or physical traits. Christians should have no part in the kind of renewed racism that is cropping up around our land, for example, in the white supremacist groups on the university campus.
The second lesson from the text is that in every nation—that is, every ethnic people group around the world (v. 35)—there are people being prepared by God to seek him with acceptable prayer. This means two things for us as we approach our annual Missions Fest.
One is that many of us should go. Cornelius would not have been saved if no one had taken him the gospel. And no one will be saved today without the gospel.
The other is that we should be full of hope and expectancy that this is the sort of wonder God is willing to work in making connections between the groping of unreached peoples and those willing to take the gospel to them.
So let us wash our minds and our mouths of all racial slurs and ethnic put-downs and be done with all alienating behaviors. And let's be the good Samaritan for some ethnic outcast, and let's be the Christ for some untouchable leper, and let's be the Peter for some waiting Cornelius.