The Church – An Extension of Christ
By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira
Our last study of the early church centered around the conversion of the apostle Paul, God’s chosen man to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. However, it was not Paul but Peter whom God used to introduced the gospel to the Gentiles. In His foreknowledge, God knew that before Paul could have any success in converting the Gentiles, the way had to first be prepared for him. He used Peter to do this. Let me explain.
One of the biggest hurdles God faced in establishing the early church was to convince the Jewish believers, including the apostles themselves, that the salvation obtained for mankind in Christ included the Gentiles. Therefore, before Paul could win the Gentiles for Christ, this hurdle had to be overcome or his mission would face insurmountable problems. This is what Acts 10, this study, is all about:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
While Cornelius was instructing these three men to go and invite Peter to come to his house, God, in turn, was preparing Peter to receive them. Our Scripture reading describes how God did this:
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Notice what happened next:
While Peter was wondering abouat the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
While Peter was still thinking baout the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?
The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
Talking with him, Peter sent inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
Now Peter understood what that strange vision God gave him on the roof top of Simon’s house was all about. It was not to show him that the gospel had done away with the health law about unclean animals, as some would like to believe, but to convince Peter that he, a Jew, was no longer to consider the Gentiles as unclean. This is a truth of the gospel Peter and the other apostles still had to learn, a truth spelled out:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
Going back to Acts 10, we find Cornelius describing to Peter his experience with the angel and how he was instructed to send for him:
Cornelius answered: “Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
After listening to Cornelius’ story, please note very carefully how Peter responded:
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
In this statement, Peter was revealing a gospel truth that we need to come to grips with. What Peter is saying here is that this godly man Cornelius had been accepted by God, i.e., he was saved, even before he had heard the gospel message and believed in Jesus as his Saviour. How can this be, you say? I, too, wrestled with this question and here is what I came up with.
All through history there have been millions of people who, through no fault of their own, have never heard the gospel or the name of Jesus. Yet they have been faithful to the light they had, whatever that light may have been. God can save such people because, in Christ, they have already been reconciled to God by the death of His Son:
2 Corinthians 5:18-21
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Yes, these people, who were faithful to the light they had, would have responded positively had the gospel truth come to them, just as Cornelius or the Ethopian Eunuch did. This is how Paul explains it:
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Now I can imagine what some of you are thinking!!! If the heathen can be saved without hearing the gospel, why spend time, money, and effort sending missionaries to foreign lands, especially when some of them have to risk their lives doing so? This is a valid question and I would like to give you three important reasons why it is necessary for the gospel to be preached into all the world, besides the fact Christ has commissioned us to do so.
However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
All other religions teach salvation by works, i.e., “I have to be good to be saved.” And you all know, that is hard.
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
John 3:16-18, 36
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. ...Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.
That is why Jesus made it clear to His disciples that when this gospel of the kingdom has been proclaimed into all the world (i.e., to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people) for a witness, the end will come (Matthew 24:14).
Going back to Acts 10, notice what happens when Peter begins to expound the gospel to Cornelius and his household:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
This experience of receiving the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues played an important part in convincing Peter and the Jewish believers with him that the gospel saves the Gentiles. To appreciate this, turn to:
1 Corinthians 14:22
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.
Until now, the Jewish believers, including Peter and the other apostles, were unbelievers when it came to the salvation of the Gentiles. That is why Peter and his fellow Jews were astonished when the Gentiles began to speak in tongues, just as they themselves did at Pentecost. This discovery was later passed on to the other apostles:
Acts 11:1-4, 17-18
The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Peter began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened.
...“So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”
When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
Now how did this whole experience prepare the way for Paul and his mission to the Gentiles? The answer is found in the Jerusalem council:
Acts 15:1-2, 5
Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.
...Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”
Most Jewish believers at that time believed that the only way the Gentiles could be saved was by first becoming Jews. This was the issue in the Jerusalem council. Because of the Acts 10 experience, Peter could correct this misconception and open the way for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles:
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.
In concluding, let us consider these facts.
The period from Abraham to the stoning of Stephen was the time of the Jews, approximately 2,000 years. During this time, Israel was to be the light of the world, but they failed miserably:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desoluate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
According to Daniel chapter 9, the time of the end for the Jewish nation was the 490 years from 457 B.C. to 34 A.D., the stoning of Stephen. Since then, we have been living in the times of the Gentiles. Almost 2,000 years have since passed. Today we are living in the Gentile time of the end:
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will bein those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
But before the end comes and this earth is left desolate by the second advent of Christ, God is going to give the whole world, including the Jews as individuals, one final opportunity to accept the gift of salvation in Christ. The message that will do that is the three angels message of Revelation 14. I believe that God has raised the Advent movement to fulfill this mission. May God remove our stubbornness and give us the wisdom and the grace not repeat the history of the Jewish nation. Amen.