Saturday, March 22, 2014

Peter’s Gospel to Cornelius


In Acts 10, the apostle Peter preached the gospel to the household of Cornelius, “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2; see also verse 22). The use of the words, “one who feared God,” indicates that Cornelius was devoted to the God of the Jews, though he was uncircumcised and not fully converted to the Jewish religion.

Peter was divinely instructed in a vision to go and announce the gospel about Jesus the Messiah to one who was a Gentile. This was a new and unexpected turn, and for Peter, a confusing one. His sermon is recorded in Acts 10:34-43( I am using the New International Version), and it is interesting to see how he proceeds, because it is not the way we are used to hearing the gospel preached in many churches today.
Then Peter began to speak: I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (vv. 34-35)
This is a very interesting section and raises a number of questions. But that is for another discussion on another day. For now, it is sufficient to point out that Peter’s new realization that the gospel of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, is not just for Jews but also for the Gentiles.
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. (v. 36)
Here we see that this is indeed about the gospel. The Greek verb translated as “announcing the good news” is euangelizo, which is the word for evangelism. There are three things to note about the gospel here:

First, we see that the gospel is about “peace.” The Greek word is irene, but being Jewish, Peter would no doubt have had in mind the Hebrew idea of shalom, which speaks of wholeness and restoration. This gospel is about peace with God, reconciliation between God and man, a restoration to proper relationship. Paul’s understanding was that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). That is the peace that Peter’s gospel announces.

The next thing we see is that this peace comes through Jesus the Messiah. Being a Roman centurion, Cornelius would have been aware of the prevalent Roman sentiment that Caesar was the one who brought peace into the world (Pax Romana, the “Roman peace”). But as one who “feared God,” he would also, no doubt, have been familiar with the messianic expectation, that it would be Messiah (and not Caesar) who would bring true peace and salvation into the world. And now Peter’s gospel specifically identifies Jesus as that Messiah. This peace comes through Jesus.

The third thing to note is that Jesus the Messiah is explicitly identified as “Lord of all,” not just the Lord of the Jews but also of the Gentiles — indeed, Lord over the whole world. As Peter earlier preached at Pentecost, God has made this Jesus “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. (vv. 37-39)
Being a centurion, Cornelius would have likely been aware of the new sect (Christians) that had arisen, and something about the figure it was centered around, and may have recognized right away who Peter was speaking of. Peter describes a bit about Jesus and His ministry and how His anointing was revealed. Peter did not speak merely of what he had heard but he was an eyewitness to the things Jesus did in Jerusalem and throughout Judea.
They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. (vv. 39-41)
Here is the cross and the resurrection. But we see that it is the resurrection that receives the much greater emphasis here. This is consistent with what we find throughout the book of Acts: The cross is mentioned a few times, but almost in passing, and not in terms of atonement or of a penalty paid for sin, of as something done in our place. In the epistles, both Peter and Paul do talk about those things, and they are important. But Peter does not speak of any of that here in the gospel message he brings to Cornelius. There is indeed salvation in the cross, but Peter does not explain how it is that the cross saves. He is much more focused on the resurrection.
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. (v. 42)
After the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and before He ascended to heaven, He announced to the disciples, “All authority has been given to men in heaven and on earth.” Then he sent them into the world to go and make disciples in the name of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). In Acts 1, where Luke records this commission in a bit different way, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples at Pentecost, and they would be His witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem and extending throughout the earth.

But what is particularly interesting here in Peter’s gospel to Cornelius is the point about which he is sent to testify. It is a point about judgment day, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the one God has appointed as judge of the living and the dead. This is the same point Paul makes when he preaches the gospel to the Greek philosophers in Athens, that God has “appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (v. 43)
Finally, Peter announces that all who have faith in Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord of all, receive forgiveness of sins. This was the same message the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament testified about the Messiah, and now fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord of all.

Peter offers no explanation of how this forgiveness can now be so. He has brought no theory about the atonement, or justification, or even the cross. He simply announces that it is so, for those who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They have forgiveness of sins.