Can non-Jewish people be saved? Today, we can say with assurance that, “anyone can be saved, through faith in Jesus Christ.” When the events depicted in Acts 10 were being played out, this was not the case. The New Testament had not been completed yet, and the Old Testament did not give sufficient guidance to overcome traditional beliefs and expectations. God uses two men to definitively answer this question – Cornelius and Peter. The first part of Acts 10 tells us what happened.
Acts 10:1-8 – Cornelius was a Roman military leader, part of the occupational forces in Judea. He was not a Jew, but a Gentile. We are not told how it came to be, but Cornelius was a devoted believer of the God of Israel spending much time in prayer. God tells Cornelius to send men to Peter, who is in the city of Joppa, so he sends two slaves and a devout soldier.
Acts 10:9-16 – The next day, Peter is up on the roof praying and God sends him a vision. A sheet containing all sorts of creatures which Jews were not supposed to eat comes down and Peter is commanded to kill and eat. Peter refuses, citing the Jewish laws that forbade him from eating these creatures. A voice tells Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”. This vision happened three times.
Keeping the old dietary laws was important to Peter and other devout Jews. They were under Roman occupation, and the empire would like nothing more than to get them to assimilate into the culture. For the Jews to keep their identity as God’s people, it was important to keep these laws to differentiate themselves.
Acts 10:17-23a – While Peter was puzzled about the strange vision, the three men Cornelius had sent arrive, looking for Peter. The Holy Spirit tells Peter that He is the one who sent these men, and that Peter should go with them without hesitation.
Acts 10:23b-33 – The next day, Peter goes with the three men to Cornelius’ house. When Peter arrives, Cornelius falls to his knees and worships him. Peter stops him, telling Cornelius that he is a mortal. Peter informs Cornelius that the Jewish laws made it illegal for him to visit a Gentile, but he is doing so because God had told him to not consider the Gentiles as unclean. Cornelius asks Peter to tell them what the Lord commanded Peter to say.
Acts 10:34ff – Peter speaks to them about how Jesus is the Messiah, and that although he was crucified, dead and buried, He was raised on the third day. Anyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name. The Gentiles then received the Holy Spirit and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
So as the head of the church, Peter now knows that salvation through Jesus Christ is now available to all people, not just the Jews. This indeed is the good news for the whole world.
It is clear from this passage that it is not Cornelius or Peter that are the main actors. It is the Holy Spirit that is acting on them, and they are just being carried by the current that the Holy Spirit is providing. It is about repentance being available to all that are willing to turn towards God.
Repentance as presented here is not a courageous step we make toward Christ, nor is it a regretful feeling for our sins. It is the divine gift of being able to be turned toward truth. Turning towards truth is beyond our power to accomplish. Like Cornelius, we cannot repent – turn around – on our own, so God does it for us. Repentance is more than a decision we make or some good deed we offer to God – repentance is the human response to God’s offer of Himself to us. Repentance is an act of God’s grace.
Society today is populated with many people who are not living according to God’s will, and some of these are believers. Let us be reminded that God desires to give repentance to all people, even to those who are opposed to God. Let us be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to witness to these people, so that they will have an opportunity to respond to God’s graceful invitation to repent and be saved.
(The above is a summary of the message shared by Shun Takano at our worship service on September 12, 2021.)