Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 347 - April 1885
Never had there been so important a step taken by man on the earth; never one demanding faith so urgently and evidently as now. Hence, though the assembly was then in its pristine order and beauty with the twelve acting together, notwithstanding the dispersion after Stephen's death which had scattered the saints generally, the Lord acted by a single servant of His whose own Jewish prejudices were note-. riously of the strongest. The assembly is responsible to act together in all ordinary questions of godliness and discipline; it is bound to guard practically tha foundations of truth and righteousness according to the written word. But a new departure needed and found a suited instrument, chosen and filled of God to initiate His will, and to take the new step in advance assuredly gathering the will of the Lord.
Peter's faith was severely tried. For the first time since Pentecost he had to encounter doubts en the pact of those who stood first in the church, and the fierce opposition of such as knew least of God and His ways. It was now not mere fleshly feeling of the Hellenists against the Hebrews, but the very serious question whether the foremost of the twelve had not compromised the testimony of Christ by the formal reception of Gentiles at Caesarea.
"But the apostles and the brethren which were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles also received the word of God. And when Peter went up unto Jerusalem, they of the circumcision contended with him, saying, Thou wentest in unto men uncircumcised and didst eat with them. But Peter began and set forth to them in order, saying, I was in the city of Joppa, praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, a certain vessel descending like a great sheet, let down by four corners out of heaven, and it came as far as me. On which having fixed mine eyes, I considered and saw the quadrupeds of the earth and the wild beasts and the reptiles and the birds of the heaven. And I heard also a voice saying to me, Arise, Peter, slay and eat. But I said, In no wise, Lord, because common or unclean never entered into my mouth. But a voice answered a second time out of heaven, What God cleansed make not thou common. And this was done thrice, and all were drawn up again into heaven. And, behold, immediately three men stood at the house in which I was, sent from Cęsarea unto me; and the Spirit bade me go with them, doubting nothing. And there went with me also these six brethren, and we entered into the house of the man; and he reported to us how he saw the angel in his house, standing and saying, Send to Joppa, and fetch Simon, that is surnamed Peter, who shall speak words unto thee, whereby thou shalt be saved, thou and all thy house. And on my beginning to speak the Holy Spirit fell upon them as upon us also at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord how He said, John baptised with water, but ye shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit. If then God gave to them the same gift as also to us when we1 believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could forbid God? And when they heard these things, they were still and glorified God, saying, Then indeed also to the Gentiles did God give repentance unto life " (ver. 1-18).
It was undeniable on the face of things that Peter had openly traversed the distinction so long set up by God between Jew and Gentile. This he had to justify by God's authority; and so he does by the simple recital of the vision already before us in the preceding chapter, which he repeats for the conviction of the brethren in Jerusalem. The moment was come for the seeds which the Lord Jesus Himself had sown to germinate and bear fruit visibly. Had He, who in Matt. x. forbade the twelve to go to any way of the Gentiles, not also when risen told them expressly to go and make disciples of all the Gentiles? The vision of Peter was merely the reduction of this great commission, or at least "a kindred one, to practice. For in Luke xxiv. the Lord about to ascend had declared that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name unto all the Gentiles, beginning from Jerusalem. And so it was. With Jerusalem they had begun. But now the tide was turning. From Jerusalem the saints had been scattered abroad. Samaria had already received the word of God, not by the church agreeing to it, nor even by the action of the apostles. And now God had left nothing ambiguous as to His will about the Gentiles. The gospel, henceforth, must go out indiscriminately. The holiness of Israel had come to naught in the cross of Christ. By virtue of the blood of the cross God could and would wash even the Gentiles clean. Ritual had come to its end. Henceforth there must be reality by faith. And as the cross of Christ pronounced all alike ruined, so now salvation was going forth to any that believed, Jew or Gentile alike. Such was the purport of the vision; and grace reasoned with Peter when he in the ecstasy ventured to controvert the Lord Himself. Who then so proper as he to convince the obstinate men of the circumcision? If they were contending with him, could he not tell them truly that he had himself dared to contend even with the Lord, Who had repeatedly and emphatically reproved his prejudices and forbidden him to deem common what God had cleansed?
Peter told them also how the three men front the Gentile Cornelius appeared at that very moment, in person, before the house in Joppa, and how the Spirit bade him go with them without a question. Such a threefold chord could not be broken; each part was independent of the other, and all of them from God. For Cornelius in Cęsarea had a vision no less than Peter in Joppa. But Peter had in addition, while he thought on his vision, the Spirit directing him to go with the messengers of Cornelius before he knew that the three men were making enquiry at the gate.
Nay, there was more than this. God had manifestly used His word as only He could. "As I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell upon them, as also upon us at the beginning." It was the gospel of their salvation. To them also the Spirit was supplied, Who wrought powers among them beyond possibility of cavil or question. The promise of the Father was therefore fulfilled in the Gentiles, as much as in the Jews who believed, according to the word of the Lord in Acts i. 4, 5.
Again, let us remark how clearly this discourse of Peter distinguishes new birth from salvation.2 Cornelius was assuredly born of God before Peter visited him at Caesarea. Nevertheless Peter was to speak unto him words whereby he should be saved. It is a gross mistake to suppose that the salvation which he now found is not far beyond new birth. Present salvation is the first foundation privilege of the gospel. To be born again was always true from Abel downwards. But those who are merely born again do not enter Christian ground, until they have received at least the first and most needful blessing, to which the accomplishment of Christ's work entitles all who believe.
The remarkable care with which God introduced the new standing-point to the Gentiles makes this confusion inexcusable. Now, while faith never was without suited mercy from God, it is one of the most marked signs of unbelief to ignore the peculiar privilege which God is now giving, and to go back to that mode or means which may have been at a former time. Here, as has been already and often pointed out, the Evangelicals are as dark as the Sacramentarians. For, if the latter party attach exorbitant efficacy to the mere sign of the blessing, the former are as ignorant of what is signified. Both agree in making the initiatory institution of the gospel to be the sign of life or the new birth; whereas it is really of the remission or washing away of sins (Acts ii. 38, xxii. 16), and death with Christ (Rom. vi., Col. ii.), i.e., of salvation (1 Pet. iii.). Cornelius learnt from the apostle that for a Gentile it was no question any longer of God's uncovenanted mercy. He himself, already born of God and acquainted with the Messiah come for the deliverance of His ancient people by faith, had now to learn of salvation's door open to the Gentile believer as truly as to the Jewish. It is not promise, as hitherto even to an Israelite; it is the work accomplished, and soul-salvation henceforth given to all believers without distinction. As the seal of it, the Holy Ghost was manifestly imparted as on the day of Pentecost.
This was conclusive, for the objections of the circumcision then. Who was Peter, as he triumphantly closed his argument, who they, to resist God? None but He could give that gift, which He had granted alike to Jews and Gentiles by faith of the gospel. But the principle is of immense importance permanently, and as much now as ever. The true ground of reception is not the acceptance of certain articles of faith, expressed or understood; still less is it a certain measure of intelligence about the one body and one Spirit, which it is improbable that a single soul in Jerusalem then possessed definitely. It is a far weightier fact, the possession of "the like gift." If not so baptised of the Holy Spirit, one is not really a member of Christ's body. To be born again never did suffice. One must have, through faith of Christ as the gospel proclaims Him and His work, the Spirit given to one as a believer. Without known remission of sins one may be quickened, but there cannot be what scripture calls "salvation," any more than the Spirit of adoption whereby we cry Abba Father. There may be conversion, a divinely given hatred of evil and love of good, God's word prized, and prayer; there may be conscience toward God, yet a real but imperfect looking toward God, with a real but imperfect looking to Christ. But till one knows by faith of the gospel that all is clear between the soul and God through the sacrifice of Christ, the Holy Spirit does not seal the person; when there is submission to. the righteousness of God, He does: then the believer is actually made a member of the one body of Christ. Of course such an one is or ought to be baptised with water; but this is never in scripture connected with that corporate and everlasting relationship. It is individual and bound up with individual confession of Christ; so much so, that whatever God may do in sovereign grace, no intelligent saint would think of presenting a soul for fellowship of the church, unless he had previously taken the ground of a baptised person. But baptism of the Holy Ghost is wholly distinct from water baptism; and this is not even a sign of that, but of salvation by Christ, or burial unto His death.
Even the stoutest defenders of Jewish exclusiveness were overwhelmed by the accumulated and crowning proof that God gave to the Gentiles also repentance unto life. It was now an incontestable and blessed fact. They were more than silenced; they "were still." Grace had triumphed, as it ought, over law, in Jerusalem, and among none but Jews that believed. It was not yet a day of ruin, when the least right are apt to be the most self-confident and jubilant. It was grace made them glorify God in reversing their previous judgment.
1) Alford takes, π as belonging to both "them" and "us," and expressive of the communion of the faith in the two parties; but though both of course did alike believe, this is to misconceive the reasoning which turns on the plain evidence of the Spirit given "on our believing."
2) Another remark must be made here, though it is grievous that it should be needed. When Cornelius was assured that he was to be saved by heeding the words spoken by Peter, how groundless and evil to infer that "all his house" were to be saved irrespective of faith! Such heterodoxy is the result of the hot furnace and continual hammering on the anvil of party. The terms of salvation are alike for Jew or Gentile, of grace but by faith. Here it is the more momentous; because it is no question of baptism (as in Acts xvi.) but of salvation: only the sounder view of Acts xi. goes far to disprove theories built on Acts xvi. But one error leads to another; and those who divorce the outward sign from the individual place assigned it in scripture, however blessed the number of individuals in a family, are in danger of advancing to a degree of error which would appal even the old and moderate holders of the prevalent tradition in the world-church whence this judaizing notion originated. Nobody is entitled to assume that one in all Cornelius' house was contemplated for salvation, till he too heard the gospel of salvation, unless salvation be by an ordinance.