There are certain common themes that run through the apostolic speeches recorded in Acts. These common themes provide a touchstone by which to test our own understanding and proclamation of the Christian message. According to Acts 2:42, the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” In the Nicean Creed, we profess that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. Of course, we have a collection of apostolic teaching in the letters preserved in the New Testament. However, in the sermons reconstructed for us in Acts by St. Luke, there are concise summaries of the earliest teaching of the apostles in various contexts. The brevity of these speeches, especially in their diverse settings, makes it easy to identify and trace the common themes.
In today’s text, Peter is once again the speaker. The context, though, has changed dramatically. His previous message at the Beautiful Gate of the Jerusalem Temple was addressed to Jewish worshipers. With them, Peter could assume a substantial degree of knowledge of the Scriptures. He also spoke to them very directly about their complicity in the crucifixion of the Lord and the implications of that for their own futures. The situation in Acts 10 is very different. Peter is not speaking in a public place in Jerusalem, but in a home in Caesarea. His hearers are not devout Jews, but Gentiles who have been drawn toward the God of Israel. Luke describes the Gentile centurion Cornelius as a “devout man who feared God with all his household.” (10:2) Thus he has the privilege of addressing an eager audience that has some general familiarity with the Scriptures, respect for the Prophets, and the faith of Israel.
Moreover, in this situation, Peter is as much a learner as Cornelius. Though Peter knows the Gospel message, God is teaching him more about who the message is for and what God intends to accomplish through the message. Thus, he opens his remarks with the words, “I truly understand...” And, it seems clear from his closing remarks (before the Holy Spirit interrupts him!) that some things—namely the testimony of the Prophets—are falling into place for him even as he speaks.
Before looking at what Peter has to say about the testimony of the prophets, let’s note a couple of the themes of apostolic preaching that are already becoming evident. The first, of course, is the resurrection. In his message at the Beautiful Gate, Peter declared, “You killed the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” (3:15) Peter relates the same to the household of Cornelius. “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day...” (10:39-40).
A second and closely related theme common to both speeches is what we might call the Lordship of Christ. The fact of the resurrection leads to this understanding. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, (which we are saving for Pentecost!), Peter wraps up with these words, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (2:36) Peter speaks to the same effect at the Beautiful Gate when he declares, “The God of...our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus...” (3:13) In his message to the household of Cornelius, the theme irrepressibly bursts into the flow of thought. Peter mentions the name of Jesus Christ and adds, “He is Lord of all.” (10:36) So when we ask, “What is it that the apostles taught from the beginning?” we can confidently say that they proclaimed that Jesus is Lord of all by virtue of his resurrection from the dead.
There is, of course, one further theme evident in both of the messages we have heard to this point. That theme concerns forgiveness of sins. Peter called upon the worshipers at the Beautiful Gate to repent, so that their “sins might be wiped out.” (3:19) And, though, Peter has no specific, egregious transgression with which to indict Cornelius, his talk ends with an assurance that all of the prophets testify about “forgiveness of sins” through the name of Jesus. (10:43)
Just to note these three themes reminds us of how strongly the original, (and foundational), proclamation of the Gospel challenges the “spirit of the age” down through the ages. The apostles did not proclaim a message about Jesus and “the inner life of the soul.” They proclaimed a message about something that happened in the history of the world with implications for the course of history. They proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead, was now Lord over all, and that each and every person needed to come to terms with the Lord of all.
Our culture, by contrast, is captivated by the notion of individual sovereignty, the finality of death, and the obsolescence of the idea of sin. This spirit manifests itself in the life of the church. There was a time not so long ago in church life when sin was regarded as a burden and a form of bondage from which Christ delivered us. The hymns of the church were replete with allusions to “the burden of sin,” “laying our burden down,” and Jesus “taking the burden away.” In our time, though, the notion of sin has been largely replaced in much of the church by ideas of dysfunctionality and maladjustment for which people can hardly be considered culpable. Sin has never been a popular topic in an age preoccupied with self-esteem!
On the other hand, the notion of reprehensible, inexcusable moral failure has emerged with a vengeance in our society around behaviors that involve abuse of power, particularly sexism and racism. That these behaviors should be named and brought to the light is entirely right and needful. What appears to be missing in our culture, though, is any concept of forgiveness or atonement. These transgressions, brought to light, now define the transgressor forever. There is no place for the Psalmist’s, “My sins and faults of youth, do thou, O Lord, forget.” (Psalm 25:7)
The church properly deals with sin in the light of the mission of the resurrected, gracious One, who said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mk. 2:5) When the church separates forgiveness and repentance, grace is certainly cheapened and the life of the new community is discredited in the eyes of the world. But, a world in which sin is exposed without a path of forgiveness is far more oppressive and unbearable than the most abysmal failures of the church. When the apostles address the “practical application” of the resurrection and the Lordship of Christ, the liberating “forgiveness of sins” brings the message home.
What is striking in Peter’s message is that he has a breakthrough of sorts in his understanding of the prophets. Now, an expectation that the Gentiles would turn to the Lord was always integral to the prophetic vision. Isaiah 2 and Micah 4, to mention only two of the prophets, share a vision of the nations streaming toward Zion and of the Lord judging between many nations, bringing in an era of peace. What Peter now realizes is that this time has arrived with the resurrection of Jesus and that the blessing of forgiveness is now offered to all peoples through his name.
In the reference to the name of Jesus we meet a fourth theme common in the apostolic preaching, which is virtually equivalent to the Lordship of Christ—namely, the efficacy and uniqueness of his name. The lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate of the temple was healed by faith in the name of Jesus. (3:16) In a similar way, Peter now announces to the Gentile household of Cornelius that all who believe in Jesus, regardless of nationality, receive forgiveness of sins through his name. (10:43)
This brings the enduring mission of the church into clear focus. Jesus told the apostles to bear witness to him. Both at the Beautiful Gate and in the house of Cornelius, Peter identifies himself as a witness. In the latter venue, the imperative of witness bearing comes into the clearest possible focus through what I like to call the grand divine inefficiency. Think about it. Think of all the trouble God goes to in order to bring Peter and Cornelius together. Dreams and visions of unclean food for Peter, an angelic ambassador for Cornelius. Consider that the angel of the Lord could have explained to Cornelius the way of salvation. Think of the impact that would have made. Think of how irresistible and compelling the gospel might have sounded, delivered by none other than an angel from the very presence of God. But what is the angel’s message? Go send for Peter, who is staying at the home of Simon the tanner. God’s design is that Cornelius will hear the gospel from a witness, a disciple—and, not to put too fine a point on it, a disciple who has had a life-long religious prejudice against Gentiles. God wants Cornelius to hear from a witness. Likewise, God wants Peter to witness that God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. All receive forgiveness of sins through faith in the risen Christ and all drink from the same Holy Spirit.
We are farther removed from the days of the apostles than we can begin to appreciate. Still, in these short messages spoken by the apostles in the earliest days of the church, there are some clear principles that endure to guide us. Perhaps no principle is harder for us to hold to than the uniqueness of the name of Jesus. Now if sincerity and piety were enough in the sight of God, Cornelius would stand out in the pages of scripture as a wonderful exemplar. The point of this episode, though, is that Cornelius needed to hear the name of Jesus. We live in a time in which evangelism is viewed as an exercise in arrogance, particularly when people of other faiths demonstrate a lot more zeal and devotion than many Christians. Nevertheless, God taught Peter that Christ alone answers the longing of the heart for God, and that God himself is at work among those who do not know him to seek after him.
What Peter had going for him was that he was a man of prayer. God meets him in his life of prayer and leads him into unexpected opportunities to fulfill his calling as a witness to the savior. May the Lord meet us in the same way in our prayers to give us a taste of the joy of the harvest and a passion to see others hear about and trust in the name of Jesus.