By Dr. Mark Scott
When the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius’s house, God was turning a new page in the church’s history. The church would never be the same. Perhaps the greatest word in John 3:16 is whosoever. That one word offers even rascals the chance to get into the kingdom of God.
Called on the Carpet
Without Facebook, Twitter, or texting, what happened in Caesarea did not stay in Caesarea. Word quickly got back to Jerusalem. The other apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God (they had accepted the gospel message). This news arrived before Peter could get back, and his critics were waiting for him.
The critics were a special brand of Jewish Christians. Their zeal for the law of God cannot be faulted. But their message of Jesus “plus” was just enough to make the gospel not the gospel. They might have meant well, but they were dead wrong. They criticized Peter by saying, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” No doubt that the accent of their critique was on the last part, eating with Gentiles. That would have meant that Peter shared their table. In the ancient world (not unlike today in many parts of the world) to share a table implied acceptance, intimacy, and reciprocity. It might not seem like a terrible criticism to us, but the fellowship and future of the church lay in the balance.
Peter defended his actions to these critics in a straightforward manner. He told the story that only he could tell. He recounted his vision on the roof (Acts 10:9-16). We learn that Peter was not only hungry when the vision happened, but he was also praying, and thus open to God’s leading.
There are clear clues in Peter’s experience of the wideness of God’s mercy. The sheet and voice came from Heaven (divine initiative), four corners (symbolic of the four corners of the earth) and four types of animals were identified (symbolic of the worldwide dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28-31). Peter strengthened his defense by indicating his resistance to breaking the Levitical dietary code. Peter said that God was changing what was viewed formerly as unclean. Even the three times that the vision happened is significant Trinitarian detail.
Peter referenced the men from Caesarea (three men) who came to retrieve him and the six brothers who went with him from Joppa to Cornelius’s house. These voices could affirm Peter’s defense. In addition to these voices Peter quoted Cornelius and even said, “The Spirit told me . . .”
In the Old Testament, truth was partially discerned by two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6). Peter had at least nine men who could affirm what Peter is saying. Essentially Peter’s defense consisted of a message of salvation to Cornelius’s house.
Peter’s message was basically, “If you don’t like this, take it up with God.” As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Peter likened what happened in Caesarea to what happened at Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-4). The Pentecost experience was clearly an immersion in the Holy Spirit. The same was true for Cornelius’s household by the divine initiative of God.
The baptism in (or with or by) the Holy Spirit is referenced seven times in the New Testament (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16; 1 Corinthians 12:13). Some like to distinguish the “baptism” in the Spirit from the “gift” of the Spirit, suggesting that only the apostles and Cornelius’s household received the former, and all others receive the latter. Others suggest that every believer receives the baptism in the Spirit (but not necessarily the Spirit’s miraculous phenomena). Luke had no interest in clarifying that challenging doctrinal distinction. Luke’s interest was that the Holy Spirit’s initiative was responsible for widening the fellowship of the church. In fact Peter could not stand in God’s way (literally “hinder”).
The testimonies were received—at least for the moment. This ongoing battle of prejudice would have to be fought another day (Acts 15:1-35), even for Peter (Galatians 2:11-14). For now Peter’s defense was accepted. God “gave” (Acts 5:31) repentance to the Gentiles too. The defense rested.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.