Chapter 4: It happened like this—
1 Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2 And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, 3 saying, ‘You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!’
4 But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying: 5 ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object descending like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came to me. 6 When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 8 But I said, “Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.” 9 But the voice answered me again from heaven, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” 10 Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven.
11 ‘At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea. 12 Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, “Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, 14 who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.”
15 ‘And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, “John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17 If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?’
18 When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.’
The Jews accuse Peter of mixing with unclean Gentiles
The report that Gentiles have now received God’s word spreads quickly in Judea. It soon reaches the ears of the apostles and other Christians. Jewish believers in Jerusalem, known as ‘those of the circumcision,’ are offended by what they see as Peter’s unholy relationships with Gentiles. When Peter returns they argue with him. Their brand of Jewish ‘holiness’ concerns Old Testament ceremonial and traditional views of outward cleanness. They believe that orthodox Jews must neither contaminate themselves nor give a poor example to other Jews by fraternising with Gentiles. It seems that the good and positive news that Gentiles have actually believed in Christ has passed them by. They criticise Peter simply because he ‘went into uncircumcised men and ate with them’. Their priority should be to share the good news of Jesus with others. But they remain entangled in superficial and ceremonial externals which have now come to an end. Christians today should learn from their mistake, and always put first proclaiming and living out Christ’s gospel.
Peter tells of his ‘clean sheet’ experiences and what followed
Peter is very patient and gracious as he answers his critics. He repeats the details of how God prepared him for his encounter with Cornelius that is set out in Acts chapter 10. The only added information we now learn from him is that there were six Christian brothers who accompanied him from Joppa to Caesarea, and that Cornelius had actually been told by the angel that all his household would be saved. That explains why Cornelius was so keen to gather all his relatives to listen to Peter’s message.
Peter does not now explain in detail to the enquiring Jewish believers exactly what he said to his hearers in Cornelius’s house, but he reveals that his sermon had only just started when ‘the Holy Spirit fell on them, as upon us at the beginning’. Sometimes short sermons can bring blessing!
Peter goes back to the words of his Lord
In any argument or discussion concerning the things of God we need to go back to the word of God, the Bible. We can be confident that the word of God is the word of ‘God Himself’! The Holy Spirit moved each of the ‘holy men of God’ He chose to contribute to holy Scripture.1 Even so, it is good to note that Scripture also includes some words that passed the lips of the incarnate Lord Jesus in His life on earth.
Peter now explains how he witnessed the Holy Spirit coming upon the new Gentile believers in Caesarea. He recalled the Lord’s words, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. This brings to mind John chapter 1:32–34:2
John bore witness, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God’.
Jesus’ actual words in Acts 1:4–5, confirm what Peter now says:
He [Jesus] commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, ‘which,’ He said, ‘you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So Peter has shown his critical and suspicious Jewish brothers that he is trusting and applying God’s word, and even the words of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, before deciding how to act in this crucial question of Gentile people coming to know Jesus Christ. For us too, the principle of rooting all our practice in the teaching of God’s word is very important. But will it now persuade those who dispute with Peter that he is correct to have eaten with Gentiles as brothers in Christ?
Keep it simple
In applying God’s word to any problem, we need to approach it as simply as possible. Peter now applies clearly and straightforwardly the fact that God has given His Holy Spirit to the new Gentile believers. He argues that if God has accepted the Gentiles who have ‘believed on the Lord Jesus Christ’, as the Jewish believers themselves have believed on Him, and if God has confirmed that by sovereignly giving them His Holy Spirit, how can he now ‘withstand God’? In other words, God has made it plain in practice that these new believers are accepted, welcomed and treated as family by God. Therefore, he must do the same. The logic is irresistible. In all fairness to those converted Jews who question him, they immediately accept the strength of his biblical argument. They humbly become silent, glorify God, and conclude correctly, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life’.
The repentant, believing Gentiles are therefore accepted as having trusted Christ and therefore as having received the Holy Spirit. Every sinner today—Jew or Gentile—who turns from sin and accepts the risen Christ into their hearts also immediately becomes a member of God’s family, both now and for eternity. The Jews who have questioned Peter now realize that he is right to have spent time with his new brothers in Christ, and to have had a meal and fellowship with them.
This leads to three personal questions. First, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, are you in God’s family of born-again believers in Christ? Second, if you are, how are you trying to help others to join it by leading them to Christ? Third, are you warmly welcoming new Christians into the fellowship of the church?
Questions on Chapter 4
Acts 11:1–18 It happened like this—
A. How does Peter’s explaining to the contentious Jewish believers prepare the way for him to answer the accusation that he should not have gone in to Gentiles to eat with them?
Acts 11:1–15, Acts 10:34–44
B. What part does the word of God have as Peter convinces people who hold another opinion that their opinion is wrong? How should we use the Bible in similar situations?
Acts 11:16–17, 1 Peter 1:20–21, 2 Timothy 3:16–17
C. What positive lessons can you learn from the way that the Christian Jews, who had questioned Peter critically, change their minds about Gentiles being accepted into God’s family?
Acts 11:18, Acts 11:1–3, 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 4:12