The Gospel to the Gentiles: Who Has Been Saved?
I was helped by a pastor this week who said, “In the Old Testament, Jews and Gentiles were reminded of a glaring separation every time they sat down for dinner.” Gentiles are anyone that are not Jewish—anyone who was not ethnically an Israelite. Jews did not eat what Gentiles ate, did not sit at Gentile dinner tables, and weren’t even supposed to enter Gentile homes (Acts 10:28). This rift separated all of mankind into two irreconcilable categories, and the whole world was reminded of it at 5:30pm every evening.
“However, as the apostles spread the message of Jesus’s death and resurrection far and wide, the unthinkable became reality. Jesus brought an end to the food fight. The King invited both Jews and Gentiles to his table.” It began with a visit by an angel to a man named Cornelius and a series of troubling dreams where the Lord commanded Peter to eat Gentile food.
This is the moment when it is made clear that God makes no distinction between peoples. For most of us in this room, if you weren't born an ethnic Jew, this is the moment that it is made very clear that the gospel is for you and me. When we say, “the Gospel going global”, it means the Gentiles, like us, can be saved.
I would summarize where we're going today with this one sentence: No one is excluded from the gospel, for all are included if they come to Christ.
We're going to focus most of our deep digging on verses 34 through 48. But first I'm going to set the scene so we can get ourselves in the story and know what's happening when we get there. But when we dig in starting in verse 34, the first thing we're going to see is that no one is excluded from the Gospel. And the second thing we're going to see is that everyone is included if they come through Jesus Christ.
Let me clarify where we are in our sentence from our summary of the book of Acts. We said: the book of Acts is about the Holy Spirit empowering his people to proclaim the gospel to all people with all boldness and without hindrance. Today, we're talking about all people.
The story starts by introducing us to a man named Cornelius, and we are at his house. He’s said to be a centurion, which means that he's a commander of at least 100 soldiers. He's pretty well off, making about four times the average wage.
We also find out in verse 2, that Cornelius fears God. This meant that he wasn't a Jew. He hadn’t become circumcised to convert to Judaism, but he respected the Jews. Maybe he went to synagogue and heard their Scriptures. According to verse 2, he prayed and gave alms.
Well, an angel visits Cornelius, and he says, “Cornelius.” Then in verse four we see Cornelius’s response: “He stared at him in terror and said, ‘What is it, Lord?’”
Here's a soldier, who commands a hundred men, and he's struck with terror. Oh, what it is going to be like to see God face to face!
Cornelius listens to the angel when he says, “go, find this guy named Simon Peter. He's in Joppa.” So Cornelius sends a couple of guys, and they're on their way.
Meanwhile, we cut to a different scene. Now we're hanging with Peter on his roof, and he falls asleep. Then in verse 11 here is what Peter sees:
“The heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.””—Acts 10:11–13
Peter replies by saying,
“But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”—Acts 10:14
But then the voice clarifies the whole point of this dream:
“And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.””—Acts 10:15
Peter snaps out of the dream, just in time for these visitors to have arrived at his house. And he gets a clear word from the angel to go with them.
A day later, and 35 miles of walking, Peter and his friends arrive at this Gentile’s house. As soon as Peter enters, Cornelius falls down and begins to worship Peter. Peter says, “I too am a man.”
And already we are getting a hint at where this story is going. Both Peter and Cornelius are but men, and worship belongs to God, and is available to all people—, the Peters (representing the Jews) and the Corneliuses (representing the Gentiles) of the world.
Now we get to verse 34. We are going to see first that no one is excluded from the gospel, and second, that anyone is included if they come to Jesus Christ.
So first, no one is excluded from the gospel. Here's Peter in verse 34 and 35.
“So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:34–35
One commentator helpfully said that this story is as much about Peter’s conversion, as it is about Cornelius’ conversion. Peter's conversion of understanding that the Gentiles are part of the gospel. Imagine that all of your life you have been taught that you and your people are different from all other people. Two thousand years of great, great, great grandparents telling their children that your ethnic people are unique among all the peoples of the world. Your people are God’s holy nation, God’s own people. All the other peoples are unclean. You are not even to intermingle with them.
Here’s Peter’s own words in verse 28:
“And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation,”—Acts 10:28
But he continues,
“But God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”—Acts 10:28.
His whole upbringing he had been told that not only are their foods unclean, they themselves are unclean. But here is God undoing this division.
Here’s a picture of this radical shift that is happening. I’m trying to come up with a picture of how radical this would have been. Perhaps like a gang member from one gang walking directly into the house and large gathering of another gang. Everyone, and I mean everyone, would have felt the tension, the awkwardness, the radical moment that was taking place.
So here’s God revealing a mystery that had been hidden for ages. It's this mystery that Jesus, at the cross, brought down the dividing wall between the Jews and the Gentiles. There was this glaring division, and God brings it down, tears it down.
Look at Ephesians 2. This is Paul's explanation after the fact later. But in Acts 10, we're seeing it play out in real time. Here's what's going on in Paul’s words. Look at Ephesians 2:11—
“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”—Ephesians 2:11–12
There's our biography before Christ: no hope, separated from the people of Israel. If you wanted to convert, you had to become an Israelite; you had to become circumcised. But in our story, we are seeing this great reversal.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility”—Ephesians 2:13–14
This is what is happening in our story. This is what Peter means when he says in verse 28,
“But God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”—Acts 10:28
Or verse 34 and 35,
“So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:34–35
Peter is realizing this as he's preaching and standing in this Gentile home. He’s seeing this dividing wall literally come down. And then verse 44 happens:
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.”—Acts 10:44–45
They go on and baptize them. Here we are seeing the first Gentile baptisms, the first Gentile Bible study, the first Gentile worship service. This is the beginning of our story. The first Gentiles are being grafted into the root.
This has been the story that God has been writing since Genesis, all the way through the end of the Bible, even if this mystery was hidden for ages. Here is what Paul says in Ephesians 3:4—
“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations.”
Let me pause there. Other generations didn't get it. But at this moment, we're seeing it unfold. God has been writing this story since the beginning, but the people didn’t understand. Let me explain what I mean. From the opening chapters of Genesis, we get this promise made to Abraham:
“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”—Genesis 12:3
Then in the middle of the Old Testament, we get this favorite vacation bible school story: Jonah. But Jonah is less about big fish, and more about God’s judgment and global salvation. Jonah and our story have a lot in common as a pastor pointed out:
“Both Peter and Jonah start from Joppa and go to the Gentiles, both protest against their commissions and need fresh revelations from God, and both have successful missions, the legitimacy of which is questioned.”
Now, why would there, in the middle of the Old Testament, be this story that sounds so similar to what we see and experience in this story? It's because God has been writing this story of the gospel going global from the beginning so that when we get to Revelation, and we read Revelation 7:9 that people from every tribe and tongue and nation will be around the throne, he's been saying this since the beginning. And Christ was the key that brought down all the hostility, but previous generations missed it. It was a mystery.
Okay, back to Paul in Ephesians 3:4–6:
“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”—Ephesians 3:4–6
That's good news for everyone in this room. If that's not true, there's no gospel, and if that's not true, none of us come to know the Lord like we know him. This story reminds us that the gospel is for us. We, Gentiles, are members of that same body. We are partakers of this promise in Christ, and we are sons and daughters even though we weren't born Israelites. Our gospel going global really means global. Every person. No one is excluded.
Here’s a sad picture of when we miss this as believers. It’s the beginning of Mahatma Gandhi’s story that I heard from someone this week who was summarizing Gandhi’s biography. Gandhi, as a young man, was deeply interested in Christianity. In fact, Gandhi read through the Gospels, and he was greatly impressed. In fact, what he saw in the gospels, it was his conclusion, that that was the answer to the problem of the caste system in India. And so he thought about converting.
One Sunday, Gandhi dressed himself and proceeded to the nearest church. His intent was to go to church and then contact the pastor. Then be catchcisized in the doctrines of the Christian faith. But when Gandhi arrived at church, the usher told him that he couldn't give him a seat, and that he ought to go somewhere else and worship with his own kind. And he left and never came back. And Gandhi says that in his mind he said, “If Christians have a caste system also, I might as well remain a Hindu.”
That's the wrong story to tell, because our gospel, it knows no bounds. Jews and Gentiles, the rich and poor, any ethnicity, any race — this gospel is for you.
There's a handful of ways that we could ask ourselves, are we excited about this? As we see this global gospel, and want to push ourselves to live out our lives accordingly, we want to check our hearts to see if we have called some people “Gentiles.” And now we get the opportunity to let the cross break down that dividing wall.
One way to ask ourselves if we have any dividing walls is to ask who sits around our dinner table? Are we willing to have whomever our Gentiles are in our minds sit around our table.
Listen to how people responded to Peter after this event. It’s in verse three of chapter 11:
“You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”—Acts 11:3
Peter then goes on to explain how God had showed him that the gospel excludes no one. Taking the gospel global means even your meals at your house will sometimes be a little bizarre to the world.
Are you sitting down and eating with people that you never should get along with? Are you dining with people from other races and nations and social classes, eating food you never would try before but do because of unity in Christ? I want to press in here just to say that this is a place where we can display the gospel going global.
It, of course, doesn’t have to be just around your dinner table. But I’m trying to give a very specific example. We can take the gospel global by setting up forks and spoons next to plates that we share with any and everyone.
I don’t know which crowd of people may be challenging for you to think to embrace. But I do know that whomever it is, that we might think in our minds that the gospel is maybe not for them. Or maybe if we were optimistic, we might say, I don't know if they would ever repent. Whoever that is, the gospel speaks to us and says, “We are to exclude no one from the gospel.”
Let me challenge you to literally carve time to live this out. Set aside one day in the month of July to invite someone to your dinner table that you would normally not invite. You can push yourself to invite someone that others would even think is weird that you have them over.
I remember when Jacque and I were in Nicaragua. We had a roommate and that roommate asked us to please not invite Nicaraguans into our home. They are poor, and they are different from us, and it's just can cause a lot of problems. And we didn't push back.
We look back at those years and lament. What were we thinking? And finally, we came to, and we started inviting Nicaraguans into our home, and you know what? It was a joy. Because the gospel is for them; because they deserve the gospel.
The gospel says just come. Come. No one is excluded from the gospel.
Don’t follow our example from back then—whomever you would be tempted to leave out on the porch—know that the gospel responds to any group of people that we might think are off limits.
Maybe it's the poor and homeless. Well, we read in places like Matthew 25 where it talks about those who are hungry, and you feed them. And then when they are thirsty, you give them something to drink, and as strangers you welcome them. And it says you're doing that unto the Lord. Because the gospel is for them.
Maybe it’s foul mouth people that aren't like you. The ex-cons or whatever. Well, you have 1 Timothy 1:15, where Paul says,
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”—1 Timothy 1:15
Paul, the overseer of executions, and the gospel was for him.
Maybe the LGBT community. Right now, we are just coming to the end of Pride Month. Maybe you’re tempted to snub your nose and think, “they can’t come into my house, evil, wicked, whatever. The gospel is not for them.” But the Bible says this:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
[So yes if they don’t repent their lifestyle leads to damnation. But the verse continues.]
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”—1 Corinthians 6:9–11
Because the gospel is for all of those people. They only heard about the gospel because people preached the gospel to them. They were in their lives, and they shared the truth that God saves sinners.
But when you look at that list, are there some people that it's uncomfortable to think about having them sit on your couch? Well, we get a fresh taste this morning that the gospel is for all people.
Okay, so that is point number one: the gospel excludes no one—race, ethnicity, lifestyle, etc. Nothing excludes someone from the gospel.
I spent so much time on point one because that is what marks this story as so unique. This story marks the gospel going to the Gentile—the gospel going to all people. But I also want you to see how it goes to them.
So now quickly, point number two, anyone is included if they come through Jesus Christ. All people come into saving faith the exact same way, and it is through Christ.
So Peter, when he's with Cornelius, he clarifies that all peoples can hear the gospel, but they all must come through Jesus Christ. Let's go back to Acts 10.
In verse 37, he begins to describe what Jesus did. How God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Verse 38: he's put to death. Verse 39: how God raised him from the dead. Verse 40: how a group of people saw him rise and we preach this good news.
Then you get to verse 43, where Peter is very clear to say you must come to Jesus.
“To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”—Acts 10:43
And when they accept Christ, the Holy Spirit falls upon them. This is a reminder that for us, as we take the gospel global, as we fight against the flesh that wants to look down on certain people and exclude them, and when we finally welcome them and invite them in and treat them like they should be treated, that we must take a risk and share the gospel.
This was a risk for Peter. He didn't know what was going to happen. But he shared the one piece of news that he had, and God did the rest of the work.
Here’s how Romans 1:16 calls us to live this out:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”—Romans 1:16
This brings together our two points. The gospel may have been for the Jews first. We have had ten chapters in Acts that was focused on the Jews. But now in Acts 10, we see the gospel is for Gentiles. It is for Greeks, Perisians, Idahoans. You name it. But the key to conversion is the gospel. And Paul calls us to follow his example—not to be ashamed of the gospel but to preach it.
Like so many of our stories in the book of Acts, we’re left with the challenge to say, “Would you take the gospel and take risks? Would you take risks with all these people that you interact with in your home, at your work, at the store? Those in your neighborhood need this gospel. Those who seem to be the least of these need this gospel.”
Would it be that we as Christians would be those who over and over and over take risks to share this good news.
So we saw in this story and Peter's sermon that no one is excluded from the gospel, but everyone is included if they come to Jesus. The Holy Spirit empowers his people to proclaim the gospel to all people with boldness and without hindrance.