The Ways of God in the Acts: 3. The Calling of the Gentiles

The Calling of the Gentiles.
Chap. 10.
THE time had now come, in the ways of God, for the presentation of the gospel in a formal way to the Gentiles; and Peter, spite of his strong Jewish sympathies and prejudices, was to be the honored means. This was quite in keeping with the word of the Lord to him in Matt. 16— “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” These words indicate no sort of princely supremacy (not even of a personal character, far less of a sucessional for all time); but it was a privilege and honor conferred upon the apostle. He had opened the door to the Jews on the day of Pentecost and 3,000 had entered; he was now to open it to the Gentiles. He had himself alluded to this day in Acts 2 (however little he then entered into it), saying to the Jews, “The promise is unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” And speaking of the same thing in a later day, he reminded his brethren, “Ye know how that, a good while ago, God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:77And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. (Acts 15:7)).
God would not have the moment farther deferred. The apostle had just been called who was to be the Lord's chosen vessel to bear His name before the Gentiles pre-eminently (Acts 9:1515But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: (Acts 9:15)); it was fitting therefore that the door of faith should now be opened to such.
The individual first called was a remarkable character. “He was a centurion of the band called the Italian; a devout man, and one that feared. God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway."1 It was a rare thing probably for a Roman officer in a garrison town to be spoken of in this way. We read of one in the Gospels, who loved the Jewish nation and built for them the synagogue (Luke 7:55For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. (Luke 7:5)); but the usual character of such was in every way different. Instead of giving alms to the conquered, it was rather the custom to oppress and exact as far as possible. But we must look a little deeper here. All was not mere benevolence in Cornelius, but the fruit of a man quickened by the Spirit. Cornelius was not yet saved, for he had not yet had Christ presented to him as a Savior; but he was undoubtedly born of God. In Zaccheus's case, I think there is a difference. He merely spoke of giving half of his goods to the poor, and of restoring fourfold to any man he had wronged (Luke 19:88And Zaccheus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. (Luke 19:8)). This was kindness and conscientiousness; but Cornelius went much farther. Does an unconverted man fear God and pray to Him always? Assuredly not. Such fruit is never borne on the corrupt tree of the old man. “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” (Matt. 7:16-1816Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. (Matthew 7:16‑18).) This godly Gentile was in reality pretty much where Old Testament saints were, born of God, confiding in Him, but not knowing accomplished redemption through a dead. and risen Christ, nor having received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
We must ever distinguish between the quickening work of the Spirit and sealing. The first was true from the first. Ever since grace introduced a hope for the sinner, there have been those in whom the Spirit of God has wrought producing new life and faith in God; but the gift of the Spirit to believers is a wholly new thing, not true until Christ rose from the dead and went on high.
The truth as to Cornelius comes out even more clearly as we proceed with our chapter. “He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him and saying unto him, Cornelius. And when be looked on him, he was afraid and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.” How plain is all this! When did the prayers and alms of an ungodly man ever “come up for a memorial before God?” Such are “dead works,” as valueless, if not as offensive, as wicked works.
To this interesting Gentile, then, the gospel of Christ was to be declared. The angel bade him send for Peter, who was then at Joppa, lodging with Simon a tanner. His obedience was prompt, his heart being simple before God; and two household servants with a devout soldier were dispatched.
At Joppa, meanwhile, the same God Who wrought with Cornelius at Caesarea, wrought with the apostle, graciously preparing him for what was before him. Peter is shown praying on the housetop (reminding us of Acts 6:44But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4)).
Falling into a trance he saw heaven opened and a vessel like a great sheet, knit at the four corners let down to the earth, filled with all manner of four-footed beasts, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. A voice bade him kill and eat. He objected, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
The answer was given, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” To make it all the more emphatic; this was done thrice, and “the vessel was received up again into heaven.” Thus did the Lord graciously wait on His servant's scruples, and instruct him as to the new work of grace now in hand. Fleshly distinctions were to obtain no longer, uncircumcised Gentiles were to be brought in, and blessed on common ground with the believing Israelite.
The middle wall of partition was now broken down, however slow those of the circumcision might be to comprehend it. While Peter pondered the vision, the servants of the centurion arrived, and the Spirit instructed him to go with them, doubting nothing. He had the precaution to take with him certain brethren from Joppa as witnesses, and to silence objectors afterward. Cornelius would have worshipped him, but Peter took him up, saying, “Stand up, I myself also am a man.” Compare with this the indignation of Paul and Barnabas when the men of Lystra would have offered them sacrifice (Acts 14:1414Which when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of, they rent their clothes, and ran in among the people, crying out, (Acts 14:14)), and the words of the angel in Revelation whom John was disposed to worship (Rev. 22:99Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God. (Revelation 22:9)). These servants knew their place, and what was due to the Lord.
Considerable and charming simplicity is to be observed in Cornelius throughout. There was simple following of the Lord in all things step by step, and when he had Peter beneath his roof he said, “Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” There was no reserve, and no desire for the suppression of any part of the counsel of God. What a contrast with this day of itching ears! Peter has at last perceived that God is no respecter of persons, but that in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness is accepted with Him. This does not go beyond the admission of the fact, that blessing is for Gentiles as truly as for Jews; as yet the truth of the one body was not declared. Of this Paul was the honored administrator. To him it was given to unfold the heavenly union of all saints with the risen and exalted Head by the Holy Ghost. Peter went no farther than to admit the Gentiles to an equal place with the Jews: “God gave them the like gift as unto us.”
His preaching is characteristic. He speaks as ever of the Lord Jesus as One Who had walked up and down among the Jews, having been anointed by God with the Holy Ghost and with power. He went about doing good, Peter and his companions being witnesses, yet was slain, hanged on a tree, but raised by God on the third day and shown to chosen witnesses. All these were public and notorious facts (he could say to his audience— “Ye know”); but Cornelius and his kinsmen and near friends had never before heard of an interest for themselves in that blessed One. They knew His path among, and His presentation to, the Jews; but they were Gentiles! Now they learn that He is a Savior for all—for “whosoever.” He is the appointed Judge of living and dead; but is that all? “To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins.”
What a message from God to needy men! At once solemn and blessed, it wrought immediately with this first Gentile company that heard it. Generally audiences are divided after a discourse; as in Acts 28:2424And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. (Acts 28:24), “And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.” But there was no such division here. “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.” Though not stated, it is implied that all believed the testimony. The Spirit is given only to believers, as we read. “After that ye believed, ye were sealed with the holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:1313In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, (Ephesians 1:13)). Peter's companions were astonished, “because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Why should they have been? Why so slow to rise to the thoughts of God? Peter afterward said, “God gave them the like gift as unto us” (Acts 11:1717Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? (Acts 11:17)). Mere fleshly standing is no more, distinctions have no place in Christianity, salvation is available to flesh, whether Jew or Gentile. “There is no difference.” Signs accompanied the gift, for these new believers began to speak with tongues, and magnify God.
What hindered now their formal reception among Christians? Who could withstand God? Consequently Peter asks, “Can any man forbid water, that these should be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.” Baptism is nowhere spoken of as a command (save to the evangelist), but as a privilege granted to all who are Christ's (compare Acts 8:3535Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. (Acts 8:35)).
It is a sign of death—death with Christ—a figure of salvation and the washing away of sins. In apostolic days, when things were done according to God, it was the first act of the believer. As remarked before, the order here varies noticeably from that in chaps. 2. and 8.
In chap. 2. the conscience-stricken Jews must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ ere they could have remission of sins, and the gift of the Spirit.
In chap. 8. the Samaritans were baptized by Philip, but had to wait for the Spirit's seal till the apostles came down. In the first case God would humble the proud rejectors of His Son unto the very dust; in the second God would preserve unity.
Here at Caesarea neither consideration had a place, consequently the Holy Ghost fell upon them at once. They heard of remission of sins through faith in the name of Jesus, they received the testimony, and then the Spirit of God. This is what we are warranted to expect. Let the gospel be but simple and full, and God will not fail in His blessed part. To His name be all praise.
W. W. F.
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