Acts 10 records a significant new phase in the spread of the gospel (Acts 1:8).
Its importance is signalled by the amount of space that Luke gives to this episode: the messenger from God to a God-fearing centurion in Caesarea (vs.1-8); the preparatory heavenly vision given to the Apostle Peter in Joppa, and the invitation from Cornelius to come to Caesarea (vs.9-23); Peter’s meeting with the centurion and his household, with the proclamation of the gospel (vs.24-43); and the astonishing response of those gathered, marked by a Pentecost-like outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and their baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (vs.48).
So important was this new stage in the spread of the message that it is recounted in 11:1-18, concluding with the other apostles and brothers conclusion that “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
Here I would draw your attention to some words of Peter, recorded in 10:36, and repeated in 10:37: “You know.”
This account is sometimes said to record information about Jesus coming to a group of bog-ignorant Gentiles for the very first time. But that is clearly incorrect: Peter recognises that they already knew many things about Jesus.
And yet, God sent a messenger to Cornelius to summon Peter to tell his household “everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” (v.33).
What did they already know? What important things were missing that required the presence of an Apostle?
What they already knew
Peter reminded the large gathering (v.27) of what they had already learned about Jesus, a great leader who had brought a message of peace (v.36). They were familiar with the events that followed the preaching of John the Baptist; the anointing of Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and his God-empowered ministry of healing and deliverance from evil spirits.
Peter’s short summary here looks like an outline of the Gospel of Mark.
How did they know? It’s clear from the Gospels that Jesus’ fame spread far and wide, both through people’s direct experience of his words and work, and through the reports that spread like wildfire throughout the region. (Jesus had even visited this area, as Mark records in Mk.7:24ff. He had unsuccessfully tried to remain anonymous, but “he could not be hidden”). Luke records in Lk.4:37 that “the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area” near Galilee. Compare Lk.4:14,Mt.4:23-25; 9:26; etc.
Given Jesus’ notoriety in the region, it is impossible to suppose that these Gentiles had not also heard of the end of Christ’s ministry — his miserable trial and crucifixion in Jerusalem (v.39). Perhaps some of them, like Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus road, would have said, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” (Lk.24:21).
What they needed to know
So what information were they missing, that required someone like the Apostle Peter to come personally to provide?
Recall the qualifications for an Apostle: he must have accompanied Jesus during his years of ministry, and also be a “witness” of his resurrection (see Acts 1:21-22). He must be someone who had actually seen the risen Christ, and Peter was such a man! That was why God chose him to bring the message to these Gentile people.
Peter proclaimed to them what they did not yet know: that God had raised Jesus from the dead (v.40), and appointed him to judge the living and the dead (v.42). And the wonderful truth to which the prophets had testified: “that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
“Everyone” – even Gentiles! (Though we shouldn’t be surprised at this, if we have read the story of Abraham in Gen.12ff.) Everyone who “believes in him.” The word is in the present-continuous tense in Greek, and refers not simply to believing things about Jesus but actually believing or trusting in him personally as the Risen Lord of all (cf.v.36).
This was what they didn’t know, but when Peter told them, it’s clear that they turned from their former ways to put their faith/trust in the Risen Christ – God “granted them repentance unto life” (11:18).
The message for us?
Why did the Holy Spirit cause Luke to record these things in such detail? Surely not for mere academic interest!
No, to this very day, there are many people who have heard the reports about Jesus. They have been told of his deeds and words while on earth. They have heard that he died on the cross to pay for sins. And they have been led to think that believing these things is what it means to have faith. But as the Apostle Paul wrote, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1Cor.15:17). And James: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (Jas.2:19).
You may believe everything you think the Bible says “about” Jesus without having trust “in” Jesus. You may believe in a wishy-washy hippie-Jesus, pussyfooting through the daisies, or a risen, powerful glorious One who will judge the nations. But unless you put your trust in the One who is actually revealed in the Bible, and who is alive today, you cannot be saved.
From beginning to end, the Book of Acts is telling us that the message of the gospel is that Jesus is Lord through his resurrection from the dead, and that all who entrust themselves to him shall not perish but have eternal life.
It is never enough to believe things “about” Jesus if you don’t also put your trust “in” him as your Saviour and Lord.