The Dealings of God With Peter in the Acts

Acts 10-12  •  18 min. read  •  grade level: 7
The occasion that claims our attention first tonight is one of the deepest possible moment. It is not merely that God had abandoned His ancient people as the seat of His power—that He had done hundreds of years before. There is a further step, and a great one, in the development of God's ways; for the call still remained to this people, but now henceforward the call is going out to the Gentiles. It is not merely power. One can understand power being vested in a people that were altogether unworthy. Power does not necessarily suppose conversion—does not suppose the communion of the mind of God. Power might be given sovereignly. Power might be employed by one who was wholly alien to the thoughts of God, though God might be making use of him. As we are told, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee; the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain.” We know, therefore, that God is able to use anything For His purpose; but it was a very different thing when the call of grace was going from the Jews, the favored people of God. And going out to whom? To the dogs of the Gentiles. For so they had ever been regarded; they were “sinners of the Gentiles,” even to put it in the mildest possible form. They were those who had, from the beginning, from the earliest days, from the flood, grown old in idolatry of every form; and now to these very Gentiles the call of God was about to go forth. The Lord had prepared Peter on the first great occasion when He distinguished him—when He said to him, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” He did not say that only. He said, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
We must never confound the kingdom of heaven with the church. They are two totally distinct things. I do not deny that there may be links of connection between them, but they are distinct. The keys of the kingdom were used by Peter, or, at least, one key, if I may so express myself, on the day of Pentecost, in opening the kingdom to the Jew in a far fuller manner than had ever been true before; and now that same Peter, albeit the apostle of the circumcision, was the very one that God used in His own holy wisdom to open the door to others, that is to say, to the Gentiles. And God was pleased on this occasion also to make it very marked; for, though there was no question of any fitness on the part of the Gentile, and though it was pre-eminently to be grace, yet the one by whom God brought out the grace in all its fullness was Paul, himself a master of the law trained up under the most distinguished of the legal teachers.
Peter was used of God, first of all, to present the gospel to a very pious man—a man of godly character and of good report, more particularly in Israel. And I think it was just as wise on God's part to bring in a godly man first—a man that was evidently known as such by Peter—as, on the other hand, to present the gospel by Paul to the very vilest and worst, wherever they might be found as, for instance, at Corinth. It was a question of stopping the mouths of the circumcision, and this, therefore, was done, and guarded too, remarkably, in sending Peter first of all to Cornelius. For we are told here that Cornelius, while the centurion of the band which was called the Italian band, was a devout man; and I do not believe that that means merely that he was a devout man after the flesh. Not only so, but he fasted, he feared God, and gave large alms, and prayed, and so on. He was a person that was known for his devotedness in various ways. He was one that had intercourse with God habitually.
Thus, you see, we learn that it was not strictly a question of conversion. The man was converted already. He was not a bit more converted after Peter went than before. We must never confound conversion with salvation. The two things may coalesce, but they may not; and in the case of Cornelius they most certainly did not. Cornelius may have been converted for years before, but then he could not say that he was saved. That was what he was brought into. He was brought in so that not only he should know that he was saved, but that all the others, too, should know that he was saved. That is, he was to be put openly and publicly by God's own work, and according to His will, on the same ground of known common salvation which the gospel had brought the believing Jew into, for we must always distinguish these two things.
There is often a haze in the minds of many persons on this very important matter, and I could not think that people are at all clear as to the gospel, and certainly not as compared with the Old Testament dealings with God, who do not see this difference. If one thinks merely of getting to heaven of being delivered from judgment —well, it is evident that all the Old Testament saints were; but that is not what is called the salvation of the soul. “Receiving the end of your faith,” says Peter, “the salvation of your souls.” That means the soul consciously brought, as a present thing, to know that all is clear between God and it—the soul knowing that sins are gone and righteousness come. Was that the case in Old Testament times? Certainly not. All that you could say of an Old Testament soul was that he was hoping for righteousness: he was waiting for this salvation. But the salvation was not come, and the righteousness was only near, for it was not yet arrived. That was all that Isaiah could say, even in the prophetic spirit.
But there is a different thing now. Now, the Spirit of God is not a Spirit of prophecy, but a Spirit of communion—not a Spirit of leading you to wait for a blessing which you have not got, but a Spirit of leading you into communion with that which you have—that which God has now given you and has announced as your portion. That is salvation, and until a soul is brought there it is not scripturally just to say that that soul has got salvation in the true full sense of the term. It you merely mean that the person is quickened—and that is what people do mean, and a most mischievous confusion it is—if you merely mean that a soul may be quickened and be still full of anxieties, still tried, still unhappy, that is another question. This is not salvation. The person may be as truly born again as you; and indeed very often you might have more confidence in a person who is full of doubts than in many a person who seems never to know what doubt is. You might he afraid that such a person had never judged self, or learned what sin was, or had any adequate sense of the judgment of God; whereas, although it is a most unhappy state for a person to be in—full of continual anxieties and questions about acceptance—still there might be other things that would show a conscience towards God, earnestness of desire to serve Him, though there might be ignorance, no doubt, of His ways—ignorance of this great deliverance—of what scripture calls “salvation.”
Now that was what Cornelius was brought into that day. It was not only salvation. The Jews on the day of Pentecost had been brought into salvation, for they had known nothing of that at all. Up till the accomplishment of redemption nobody knew salvation as a present thing. It could not be said of any one, and yet at the same time you would have no doubt of their eventual security. What people confound is future security with present salvation. Now they are not at all the same thing, and no amount of confidence about security is the same thing as the enjoyment of known present salvation. That was what Cornelius was brought into that day, and this is what is characteristic of the gospel to-day, and therefore it is said, “The word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.”
Hence, at once you find sealing. There was sealing with the Holy Spirit, because the seal of God comes upon those who enter into present salvation. What we find on this occasion was not merely the Spirit of God working in the soul of Cornelius—there was much more. Cornelius, I repeat, was not a self-righteous man that was merely going through forms of religion. If Cornelius had died he would have gone where all the other saints had gone before him. There were saints among Jews, and saints among Gentiles, but there were none before Pentecost, even among Jews, that were brought into this salvation. And, on the other hand, there had been none up to this time among the Gentiles at all. Cornelius was the first. And God particularly took care that the man that was first brought should be a man that was of most excellent character prayerful. But still, had you asked him, “Are you saved, Cornelius?” he would have said, “Oh, I would not presume—I would not dare—to say such a thing.” “But do you not know that God is giving salvation to His people? Do you not know the great work that is going on in Jerusalem?” “Oh, yes,” he would say, “but that is for the people that have got the promise; that is for the people to whom God bound Himself. Now He has accomplished it; now He has given the Spirit according to prophecy. But then, for me, I am only a Gentile.”
In short, he took what people sometimes call the place of the un-covenanted mercy of God. It was not at all that he doubted the mercy of God to his soul, but, as to present clearness, present consciousness of nearness to God, he had no thought of it, did not know that God was about to bring His people, whether Jews or Gentiles, on to this common ground. He knew it for the Jews. For Peter, in his preaching to him, alludes to the peace that was being preached to the Jews. It was not that he doubted that. But is it for the Gentile? He learns that it was. And God made His new dealing very marked, for, you observe, in the whole matter we have special intimations from God. God was not content to leave Peter to act now merely by any less thing, such as reminding him of the commission of the Lord Jesus. Do you not remember, Peter, that the Lord said, “Preach the gospel to every creature"? Do you not remember that he said, “Make disciples of all the Gentiles"?
None of these things first. There was a present dealing. There was a trance into which Peter fell, and in that trance he learns. There was that great sheet, those creatures of all kinds of which Peter was commanded to kill and eat, he being very hungry. And the voice that accompanied it showed what the meaning of it was, interpreted as it now was by the messengers that came to Cornelius to whom God had sent His angel. That angel had directed him to send for Peter. Thus, you see, there was a most careful, watchful care on God's part. There was a dealing in Caesarea; there was a dealing also in Joppa—two different intimations from God, each of them having its own distinct type but to the same point. And now they meet at the house of Simon. Peter commits himself to the guidance of the servant of Cornelius, and they come down to Caesarea. Here was Cornelius waiting, with his kinsmen and near friends. “And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshipped him.” We see how little he entered into the measure of man in the presence of God which the knowledge of Christ gives. We see the extraordinary veneration, which Peter stops at once. Peter was only a man, after all, though he was come down to declare the salvation of God.
But there are some other particulars to which I shall direct your attention in a moment. In the discourse of Peter, he says, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth him.” Now Cornelius was one of these. Cornelius, let me reiterate, was not a man of mere forms—he was anything but that. He was a man of reality. It was no question of his being born again, but of his being saved; that is, saved in the sense which you will not find generally in Christendom. Christendom has lost the true sense of salvation. It has not lost the idea of the Lord Jesus as a Savior, after a sort. But salvation as a present state, as a present state of soul entered into by faith, unquestionably it has lost. It has lowered it down and confounded salvation with the new birth. This is not at all merely a question of the mere ignorant formalist. You will find it, bad or worse, if possible, among excellent men, and it does not matter what school—Arminian or Calvinist—it makes no difference. The Calvinist is just as ignorant about it as the Arminian. There is no difference in this respect among any of them as far as I know. That is, the want of perception of the truth as to this great matter, is universal. And that is my reason for dwelling upon it at considerable length, because it is eminently practical. You know very well how many souls are tried, and full of what they call their anxious experience—their painful experience. Well! no doubt. But the reason is just this: that experience is founded upon Old Testament truth. They have not entered into the fullness of the blessing and deliverance which is now preached in the gospel.
This, then, Peter opens. “He that feareth God and worketh righteousness” —the case with Cornelius— “he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted with him. The word which God sent unto the children of Israel” —that was what I described at the beginning— “preaching peace by Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all); that word, I say, ye know.” Cornelius was not ignorant of that, but his very humility made him unwilling to appropriate it until God sent it to him—until he knew that it was presented to him. This will be so the greater your value for the people of God, if you know that you do not belong to them. And there again I am reminded of another thing, and that is, that the phrase “people of God” has lost its sense; for now all that people mean by “the people of God” is the elect. They obliterate by that very fact the distinction between the ancient people of God and the Gentiles to which they naturally belong; so that you see the fact is that the phraseology of Scripture is completely misleading in modern Christendom, and, indeed, in ancient too; and the phrase, “people of God” has been appropriated by those who are now found here below, to the denial of it to the ancient people. Here it is used in its scriptural sense.
“That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Juda, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached; how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost, and with power; who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all things which he did, both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they slew and hanged on a tree; him God raised up the third day and showed him openly, not to all the people” —you see “the people” is constantly used here for the Jewish people only— “not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen of God, even to us"; for now God was forming a new people altogether, “who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach unto the people and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead.” But was it only to the people? “He commanded us to preach to the people.” What does he mean by that? The Jew, of course. Not so. “To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him.” So we find light beginning to dawn upon this going forth of the gospel to every creature—to the Gentile as much as to the Jew.
“And, while Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.” A very notable difference to what we saw on the day of Pentecost, for there they were baptized first. They were baptized every one, and believed on Jesus for the remission of sins, and then they received the gift of the Holy Ghost; but here it was while he spake the word, and these were Gentiles. This was the way of God, as you observe, with the Gentiles. “While Peter spake these words the Holy Ghost fell on them which heard the word.” And no doubt there was great wisdom in it, because who would have been bold enough? Perhaps Peter. But then there were these brethren of the circumcision there. What would they have thought? So it is plain that there was the remarkable anticipation of the difficulty of souls, in tender anxiety, on the part of God who would remove their difficulties. There was this fact. How was it attested? God had taken care of that also. It was a new thing—the gift of the Holy Ghost and accordingly, as in the case of all new things ushered in by God into the world, there were outward signs and wonders. It was accompanied by speaking with tongues—by miracles.
It was not that these signs or miracles that accompanied it were the gifts of the Holy Ghost, but they were the means of manifesting the gift of the Holy Ghost. The signs might drop, but not the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost when given was to abide forever. So our Lord had declared. Now it was made good. The Spirit of God was come. There never was a promise that the signs were always to be given. It was said in the Gospel of Mark, “These signs shall follow them that believe.” It was never said that these signs shall always follow them that believe. That is what people constantly assume who harp upon the importance of miracles, and are constantly yearning for God to restore miracles. They seem to assume that the Lord gave ground in this statement for looking for miracles and signs at any time. Not so. “These signs shall follow them that believe.” How long was just a question for God—for His wisdom. God gave an unmistakable token of that which was still deeper —that which the world will not and cannot believe —a divine person coming down and deigning to dwell both in the saint and in the church. That is what is meant by the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is the Holy Ghost given in a way in which He never was before. And this, accordingly, was given to Cornelius and his house. They “were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost; for they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.” Accordingly, “Can any man forbid water?” said Peter. It was not a question of keeping them till they learned what baptism meant, but they were brought into the privilege of baptism at once. It was a thing conferred upon them. It was not to be as a kind of duty, or law, or attainment, or a question of intelligence, or anything of the sort, but it was a privilege conferred upon them. Who could forbid water baptism to those that were baptized with the Holy Ghost? So the thing was settled. The great question was solved, and now grace could have its free way, and the mouths of Pharisaic objectors outside and inside were stopped forever. At least it ought to have been so.
[W. K.]
(To be continued)