Acts 10 is a very important chapter in the New Testament for a variety of reasons. First and foremost it shows how God used the Apostle Peter to once and forever break the religious boundary that separated Jews and Gentiles. The food laws were declared null and void the moment God said to him:
“Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13 ESV)
Of course, Peter being Peter, the message had to be repeated multiple times, but eventually he understood:
“God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28 ESV)
The food laws had been used in the Old Testament as a sort of visual aid or dramatic parable. The law was our teacher and the food laws intended to teach the covenant people about the need for them to be distinct and to make distinctions – to understand the difference between right and wrong, pleasing and foul, healthy and hurtful.
That was their job.
They were supposed to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and God was teaching them discipline and discernment in small things as a preparation for the bigger and more significant things that would follow.
But now, that function had been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was the sword of division – he would be making the distinctions now and his Word would tell us exactly what was holy and what was wicked and he said that such things had precious little to do with what foods we put into our bodies. He taught that very clearly:
“Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him…. Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Mark 7:14–19 ESV)
There is an editorial comment in Mark’s Gospel immediately following that paradigm shifting message that almost certainly traces back to the Apostle Peter. Right after saying that it is not food that defiles – but the thoughts and inclinations of the human heart, Mark inserts this explanatory note: “(Thus he declared all foods clean)” (Mark 7:19 ESV).
Peter was the source of Mark’s Gospel and Peter could only have said that – because he only understood that – after the story that is written down for us in Acts 10. It was when God said; multiple times –
“Rise, Peter; kill and eat…. What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:13-15 ESV)
That’s when Peter understood what Jesus had meant when he taught about the things that truly defile. It is not the food that we eat; it is the thoughts that we think; the words that we say and the desires that are conceived and cherished in our hearts.
“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21–23 ESV)
And so the food laws were neither ultimate nor perpetual. They served a purpose and that purpose being fulfilled they were now being set aside so that the mission to the Gentiles could begin in earnest.
That is by far the most important thing to understand about one of the most important chapters in the all the Bible.
There is another message of significance to be found among those verses.
In Acts 10:34-43 Peter preaches the Gospel for the first time to a largely, if not entirely Gentile audience. His message and their response was obviously satisfactory to God – we can be certain about that because of what is recorded for us in verse 44. The Bible says:
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 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. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10:44–48 ESV)
If the New Testament is clear about anything it is clear about the fact that people receive the Holy Spirit when they believe. The Apostle Paul could become quite exasperated with anyone who lacked clarity on this central point. He asked the Galatian believers:
“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?” (Galatians 3:2–6 ESV)
The message here is quite unmistakable: if you have faith like Father Abraham then you will receive the promised gifts of God – chief among them, the gift of the sealing and indwelling Holy Spirit. That gift is not given through works of the law but through hearing with faith.
Just like we see in this story.
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” (Acts 10:44 ESV)
From this observable fact we can easily deduce the following:
1. Peter’s preaching of the Gospel was sufficient to facilitate true faith and conversion.
2. Their understanding of the Gospel was sufficient to warrant the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In essence, this unique scenario allows us to ask and answer a very important question: what does a person need to believe in order to be truly saved?
We begin with what Peter said to them as handed down to us by the Book of Acts:
So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34–43 ESV)
Assessing What Peter Said:
1. The Gospel is for everyone (v. 35)
Peter understands now that while Jesus went first to the Jewish people the Gospel was always and ultimately for all people, everywhere. It was fitting that it should come through the Jews because the promises had been made to Abraham.
This is the piece that Peter finally understands.
That the Gospel went to the Jews first does not mean that one has to become a Jew first in order to receive it. Granted his hold on this truth appears to have been tenuous. It seems that Peter later equivocated or at least obscured this essential truth while ministering at a mixed race church in Galatia but he was quickly set to rights by the Apostle Paul as narrated in Galatians 2:11-14. The church had to wrestle with this new insight because they had operated for so long inside of a racially defined community.
But the church could not be so.
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6 ESV)
Those old distinctions were gone now and the way of salvation was to be offered to everyone.
2. The Gospel is about peace (v. 36)
Peter describes the Gospel as the “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (verse 36).
David Peterson says helpfully here:
“Peace in Luke-Acts is a synonym for salvation, as it is in Isaiah 52:7 (cf. Lk. 2:14, 29-32; 19:42), involving release from the judgment of God through the forgiveness of sins and freedom to serve God in holiness and righteousness (cf. Lk. 1:67-79).”
While that is certainly true it does not mean that everyone hearing Peter that day immediately made all of those reasonable connections. They likely understood Peter to be saying that in some way, because of Jesus, people could have peace with God and help against their enemies. Zechariah’s prophecy, cited by Peterson above, makes that point explicitly:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:68–71 ESV)
Of course as believers come to know Jesus a little better and to understand and appreciate his teachings they will inevitably develop a very different understanding as to who their true enemies are – but that is content for another day. At this point in the story, they have heard and apparently believed, that because of Jesus, they can have peace with God and help against every enemy that troubles them.
3. Jesus is Lord of all (v. 36)
In verse 36 Peter says that Jesus “is Lord of all”; the phrase “Jesus is Lord” became a sort of mini Christian creed very early on in the church. Ben Myers explains the significance of this phrase:
“To confess Jesus as Lord means to acknowledge him as the one who shares the identity of Israel’s God. In the Old Testament Scriptures God is named YHWH, Kyrios, Lord; and in the New Testament Jesus is revealed as the one who bears that name. So to confess Jesus as Lord is to set him above all other loyalties.”
One cannot be “saved” without recognizing Jesus as God in the flesh.
One cannot be “saved” without submitting to Jesus as Master, Leader and Teacher.
He must be the One to whom our highest loyalties and ultimate affections are given.
That is what it means to say that Jesus is Lord of all.
4. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 38)
In his sermon to the household of Cornelius Peter identifies Jesus with the God of Israel (as mentioned above) while also saying that:
“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.” (Acts 10:38 ESV)
Jesus is God and yet was also acted upon by God and filled with the Holy Spirit of God. One could easily argue that all of the constituent elements of early Christian Trinitarianism can be found within this passage.
To be clear, the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. The word was developed by the church to describe what the church had always believed: that Jesus was God and yet in some sense also distinct – he was God and “with God” as said in John 1:1. Jesus is God but he is not “the Father”, nor is he “the Spirit” – and yet the Father is God and the Spirit is God. There is only one God and yet there are three distinct persons – three and one! God is a “tri – unity”. Thus the word “Trinity” came to represent what the Bible clearly teaches about God in passages just like this one. In this one verse we have God acting upon Jesus (who is God) and filling him with the Holy Spirit (also God). While it is unlikely that any of the people hearing Peter were pondering the deep mystery of what later came to be thought of as the doctrine of the Trinity they were clearly believing in an acceptable way all of the things that they were being taught. They were believing that God acted upon Jesus (who is Lord of all) and empowered his ministry through the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Did they understand all of that?
But they clearly believed it – and believing it they were saved.
5. Jesus did good and set many people free from the power of the devil (v. 38)
Jesus had to be good in order for his death to mean anything for bad people like you and me. Had Jesus been anything less than utterly and entirely good, then his death would have simply been the death that he owed to a holy God. After all:
“the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV)
Eternal life has always been connected to loving obedience to the Word of God. It has been that way since the beginning. In the Garden of Eden God said to Adam:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16–17 ESV)
Obey God and enjoy him forever; disobey God and you will die.
At least in the sense of being straight forward. Adam of course did not obey God and thus Adam – and all who followed after him – eventually died. They lived a truncated life as a result of their refusal to love, trust and obey God.
That’s why it matters that Jesus was perfect obedient, perfectly trusting, perfectly loving and perfectly good. Because being all of those things – Jesus the man had every right to live forever. Thus, when he died, his death was a gift that he could give on behalf of whomever he chose. Jesus made this very clear. He said in John 10, speaking about his life:
“No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10:18 ESV)
Jesus was altogether and entirely good – and thus he laid down his life as a ransom for many. His death satisfied the wrath of God and released people from the power of the devil. He laid down his life to set us free – praise the Lord!
6. He was crucified by the Jewish leaders (v. 39)
The Gospels make it plain that the lion’s share of the blame – humanly speaking – for the death of Jesus is rightly attributed to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The Romans of course had a role to play of course, but as Jesus himself said to Pilate:
“You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11 ESV)
Colin Kruse says succinctly here:
“It was Caiaphas who handed Jesus over to Pilate (18:28–30) and Jesus said his culpability was greater than Pilate’s.”
This is no cause for anti-semitism; ultimately the plan was God’s as Peter makes clear in Acts 2:23, and equally true is the fact that our sin – collectively – put Christ on the cross.
Kruse is saying no more here than Peter – a Jew himself – said to the household of Cornelius:
“we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 10:39 ESV)
Jesus was crucified by his own people. That is part of the pain and the hurt that he endured on the cross. The Apostle John – also a Jew – said this as well:
“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:11 ESV)
To believe in Jesus accurately you must believe that he was the rightful Messiah of Israel – and yet because of the stubbornness of the human heart, his own people, by and large, refused to acknowledge him. In the mysterious Sovereignty of God, this will lead to the full inclusion of the Gentiles at which time:
“all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:26 ESV).
It is unlikely that the people hearing Peter that day understood all of the ramifications of what he was saying – but it is clear that they heard and believed that Jesus – though Lord of all and though rightly the Messiah of the Jewish people – was rejected and crucified by the leaders of Israel in Jerusalem.
7. But God raised him up (bodily) on the third day (v. 40)
Jesus died for our sins – but thanks be to God, he rose again!
Peter puts it this way:
“but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen.” (Acts 10:40–41 ESV)
Jesus did not rise “spiritually”. He rose in a body that could be seen and touched by other people and that was. He met with his disciples on multiple occasions, he ate with them, they touched him and he touched them. He appeared to large crowds and to many different people in many different locations. Jesus rose in a body and Jesus lives in a body right now in the presence of the Father to make intercession for us.
There is no version of saving faith that does not include belief in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus from the grave.
To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the death of Jesus on the cross was received by God as a satisfactory payment for the debt of human sin. That is why the Apostle Paul said that Jesus:
“was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Romans 4:25 ESV)
The resurrection of Jesus was not an add on or a bonus – he was raised for our justification.
The empty tomb is God’s way of saying: “Payment accepted”.
When you put your debit card into the machine in order to conduct a transaction at the store there is no better feeling after those few anxious seconds than seeing those marvelous words “Payment Accepted. Remove card.”
That’s what the empty tomb is!
It is also a reminder that there is life beyond death for all those who are united by faith to Jesus Christ. When those members of Cornelius’ household were baptized that day they were expressing their faith in the death of Christ; by going under the water; and they were expressing their faith in the resurrection of Christ by coming up out of the water.
United in death, raised again unto newness of life!!
We say that because we believe that. We believe that as Jesus rose from the dead so shall all those who put their faith and trust in him – thanks be to God!
8. He commissioned us to tell his story and to warn of an impending judgment (v. 42)
The Gospel is a story that must be told. It is good news – but it also carries in it the possibility of bad news. You cannot believe in any saving kind of sense, if you deny that. Peter makes that very clear, he says:
“he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:42 ESV)
He commanded us.
Disciples of Jesus Christ are commanded to speak about the final judgment. It is not optional and it is not something that “nicer” Christians can remove from their presentation.
That is disobedience and that is unkind.
If there is a final judgment – and Jesus says there is – then it is not loving to hide that fact from other people. They need to know. And they need to know how to prepare.
Christians must believe that this is so and they must believe that they must declare it to be so. There is no such thing as a Christian who is unconcerned about the prospect of his or her friends and neighbours facing the final judgment unprepared.
To be a Christian is to be concerned and it is to be communicating this reality to other people.
9. He is the focal point of all of Scripture (v. 43)
A truly saved person believes that Jesus is the focal point of all of Scripture. Peter said as much in verse 43:
“To him all the prophets bear witness.” (Acts 10:43 ESV)
Peter believed that because Jesus said that on multiple occasions. In John 5 he said:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39 ESV)
In Luke 24 he said:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44–45 ESV)
The Scriptures are about Jesus! The law, the prophets and the Psalms are about Jesus! They testify of him!
Martin Luther said that the Scriptures are the cradle wherein Christ is laid. He is anticipated in the Old Testament and explicated in the New Testament. He is the heart, focus and centre of it all.
To be a Christian – to believe in a saving sense – is to believe that.
It is to believe that Jesus is God’s Word to us.
10. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins (v. 43)
And it is to believe that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.
And many other things too – but never less than this: if you believe in him you receive forgiveness of sins.
To believe that of course, you have to believe that you require forgiveness of sins. That means that you know yourself a sinner and that means that you believe that your sin is a problem for you and that it has the effect of diminishing you and separating you from your heavenly Father.
To receive this truth is to recognize and accept that you can never earn the favour of God through works of obedience or personal piety. It is to understand that no good deed done by you can remove the stain or effect of all the bad deeds done by you.
It is to believe that salvation must come from the outside.
That is why the Apostle Paul said:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)
You can’t be a Christian – you can’t believe in any kind of satisfactory sense – without believing in some version of that. You have to believe that you are a sinner and that your sin separates you from a holy God but that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus has dealt with that problem in a glorious and entirely sufficient way. He is your peace with God. He is your sacrificial lamb. He is atonement.
Thanks be to God!
It was while they were hearing those things and believing those things that the Holy Spirit came upon them. The Book of Acts puts it this way:
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” (Acts 10:44 ESV)
They heard those things; they believed those things and hearing and believing they were saved.
They did not yet have a fully developed ecclesiology. They probably hadn’t thought through the exact nature of church government. They may not have thought too deeply about how gender is affected by the grace of adoption or how the gifts of the Spirit ought to operate in a local congregation – we know for a fact by reading the New Testament letters that such things were generally worked out AFTER people came to saving faith in Christ.
But they knew enough.
They knew and believed enough to be saved.
That is not to make an argument for theological minimalism; all true believers will desire to grow and increase in knowledge; it is simply to rejoice in the simplicity of saving faith. As has been said many times before, the Gospel is like a lake that is deep enough for elephants to swim in and shallow enough for children to wade in – thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.