The Gospel and Spirit Given to the Gentiles without Partiality - Sixth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Acts 10:34-48
May 09, 2021

We have had a succession of readings these last few Sundays from the first half of the book of Acts. In these chapters, we see happening what Jesus told the disciples would happen, when He was showing Himself alive to them at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus said: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-48 ESV). Then He said, “You are witnesses of these things. And I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48- 49 ESV). Acts 1 picks up on this theme, where Jesus says to the eleven, who are now referred to as apostles: “[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV).

And so the Holy Spirit was poured out (Acts 2). The apostles testified and preached in Jerusalem (Acts 2-5). Then the mission expanded into Samaria (Acts 8).

Today, we see the mission expanding even farther, with Peter being sent to the house of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. As Acts develops into the ministry of the Apostle Paul, we see the beginning of the fulfillment of Christ’s words that the Apostles would be witnesses to the end of the earth.

But this part of the mission is not yet complete. It has been and must be completed by the church; by us Christians. We participate in this mission by being students of the Apostles, for God’s truth and Gospel have not changed. You and I have our small part to play in this.

Today we find Christ sending Peter to the house of Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion in the Roman army. He was part of a regiment called the Italian Cohort. He was stationed, along with his family, at Caesarea, in Palestine. If you drew a line from Jerusalem directly westward out to the Mediterranean Sea, Caesarea was located along the coast quite a ways north of there. Peter was in a town called Joppa, which was also along the Sea, south of Caesarea. The Lord Jesus was about to teach Peter some important things about being in mission, particularly about partiality.

Here is the back story.  Peter was on the rooftop of the house he was staying at in Joppa. It was about noon. He was hungry. He began to experience a vision. He saw the heavens opened and an object descending that was like a big sheet, being held up at its four corners. He saw all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds in the sheet. A voice came to him saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). In other words, the voice in the vision was telling Peter to harvest any of those animals for food.

Peter objected (Acts 13:14). He did so because the law of Moses did not permit a Jew to harvest all of those animals for food, but only certain ones. So Peter said, “By no means [will I harvest those animals], for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). Then the voice spoke again and said, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). This happened three times and then the vision ended, and the object was taken back up to heaven.

The point of this vision was to prepare Peter for what was about to happen next. What was about to happen was that Christ was going to send Peter to preach the Gospel to the household of Cornelius, the Roman, at Caesarea. It is as Peter himself said, when he entered Cornelius’s house: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for [by you Cornelius], I came without objection” (Acts 10:28 ESV).

Thus we come to the part of the story where Peter is proclaiming the word of God and the Gospel to the household of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. Peter talked about how Jesus of Nazareth was anointed with the Holy Spirit and went about doing good wherever He went; how He was put to death by the rulers, but how God raised him from the dead; how God has appointed Jesus to be the judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:38-42).

While Peter was preaching the Gospel, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household. They began speaking in tongues and were extolling God (Acts 10:44).

The point of this part about speaking in tongues is not to establish a necessary connection between the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, as if you have to speak in tongues to demonstrate that you have the Holy Spirit. Rather, it was to show that God was doing the same thing among the gentiles that He did among the Jews. This becomes evident when we see how the believers from among the Jews were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the gentiles, just as it had been among them (Acts 10:45).

And so Christ sent the Gospel and the Holy Spirit to the gentiles. He does so to begin the fulfillment of His command that the Gospel be preached to all the nations, to the end of the earth.

In this, Christ taught Peter and teaches us that when it comes to His truth, when it comes to the Gospel and giving the Holy Spirit, God does not show partiality. Peter himself says it at the beginning of his proclamation: “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 ESV). Thus Peter learned that God does not show partiality, so as to exclude from the church, or impose conditions and requirements for admission, the way human beings tend to do. This is vitally important for the mission because the mission can be greatly hampered and sometimes brought to a standstill when partiality is shown by human beings in a way where God shows no partiality, where God puts up no barriers to admission and participation.

What matters to God is His word, His will, and truth. We could also say such things as fairness, faithfulness, and goodness. What matters to God is Jesus Christ and the fact that He has obtained our salvation in Him and delivers it to us in word and Sacrament. When Peter saw the vision of the sheet coming down from heaven with all those animals, the point was not about animals. Rather, it was a living metaphor about the distinctions humans inappropriately make among themselves in showing partiality, distinctions God does not respect when it comes to the truth, the Gospel, and the kingdom of Christ.

So what are some examples of partiality that humans tend toward that can be a problem? An example can involve partiality along ethnic lines or race. God categorically rejects such partiality, no matter what direction it runs. This was the sort of thing going on between Jew and gentile, also being complicated by religious concerns.

God shows no partiality along the lines of gender when it comes to admission to Christ’s kingdom. The truth of God’s word, justice and fairness, the Gospel and the giving of the Holy Spirit is the same for men and women. There is a distinction of roles, but not a distinction of truth and admission to and being in the kingdom. The Apostle Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Human beings can also tend to create partiality along other lines, like rich and poor, which was a problem in Corinth, social groups, ideologies and political and social causes, circles of friends that become cliques and then can develop into factions, family, and insider and outsider.

In all of these partialities, humans make distinctions by thinking that one is in with respect to the kingdom of God on the basis of the partiality involved. And then things go downhill from there, thinking, that if one is in, then one is entitled to special privilege, and overlooking of things. And then judgments can be rendered and conditions imposed on the person who is out, unless they meet the standards of the in group in order to gain admission. Such a thing is contrary to the Gospel. The standard for admission according to the Gospel is the word of God and the Gospel.

The message from the apostle is clear: God does not acknowledge and respect as determinative and controlling in His kingdom the partialities that humans tend to set up. Christ showed this to Peter in the vision of the great sheet coming down from heaven, and in the fact that Christ poured out the Holy Spirit on the gentiles. God’s truth, Jesus, our redemption, the Gospel, and the mission are greater than all of us, and any partiality human beings tend to set up.

So what does God require? The Apostle Peter says it: “Whoever fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:35).

Now initially we might hear this and wonder if Peter is teaching works righteousness, that is, that the basis of our justification before God is obedience to the law. No, Peter is not teaching this.

Look at it this way. Recognize that this statement is being spoken where the context is the horizontal plane, not the vertical plane in relationship to God. The horizontal plane involves relations among human beings. This is the context in which Peter made this statement. So we can see what the Jewish believers in Christ could have been thinking. We fear God and do what is right, and so we are acceptable to God. But now Peter comes along and says, in every nation, among every people, in every society, those who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to Him.

Thus, the point is that God shows no partiality. Any person who fears God and seeks what is right is prepared to receive the Gospel. And God gives the Gospel to all without distinction. There is no requirement along the lines of the partialities that human beings tend to set up.

Another important thing to recognize is that fearing God and doing what is right are indications of repentance. We understand that fearing God and doing what is right is according to what God says is true and right. Such repentance makes one prepared to receive the Gospel. Cornelius and his household may have had fearing God and doing what is right, but they did not yet have the kingdom until they heard the Gospel. So justification before God takes place by faith in the Gospel of Christ, by which forgiveness of sins and admission to the kingdom are obtained.

This way of justification is open to all people, and it is the standard of admission to Christ’s kingdom. God considers any human being as righteous and pleasing in His sight, in terms of repentance and faith in Christ, according to His impartial law and truth, and according to the good news of His Son, Jesus, who is God’s gift to all. And that is the biggest point. Jesus is God’s gift to all.

And so Christ’s mission goes on. May God strengthen us to be faithful in our own repentance and faith, as we too are part of Christ’s mission. Amen.


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