A Commentary by John Stott

Acts 9:32-11:18. 6). Lessons to learn.

Luke tells the story of the conversion of Cornelius with great dramatic skill. But has it any abiding significance? There are no Roman centurions in the world today, and Gentiles have been full members of the church for centuries. So has this incident any more than a historical – even antiquarian – interest? Yes, it speaks directly to some modern questions about the church, the Holy Spirit, non-Christian religions and the gospel.

a). The unity of the church.

The fundamental emphasis of the Cornelius story is that, since God does not make distinctions in his new society, we have no liberty to make them either. Yet, tragic as it is, the church has never learned irrevocably the truth of its own unity or of the equality of its members in Christ. Even Peter himself, despite the fourfold divine witness he had received, later had a bad lapse in Antioch, withdrew from fellowship with believing Gentiles and had to be publicly opposed by Paul (Gal.2:11ff). Even then, the circumcision party continued their propaganda, and the Council of Jerusalem had to be called to settle the issue (Acts 15). Even after that, the same ugly sin of discrimination has kept reappearing in the church, in the form of racism (colour prejudice), nationalism (‘my country, right or wrong’), tribalism in Africa and casteism in India, social and cultural snobbery (Jas.2:1ff), or sexism (discriminating against women). All such discrimination is inexcusable even in non-Christian society; in the Christian community it is both an obscenity (because offensive to human dignity) and a blasphemy (because offensive to God who accepts without discrimination all who repent and believe). Like Peter, we have to learn that ‘God does not show favouritism’ (10:34).

b). The gift of the Spirit.

Luke whose keen interest in the ministry of the Holy Spirit we have already noted, gives much prominence to him in the Cornelius story. This rebukes those Christians who overlook or underplay his work today. Even if the speech in foreign languages, which characterized both the Jewish and the Gentile Pentecost (2:4; 10:46), is not a universal Christian blessing, the gift of the Spirit himself is. Yet this story also poses awkward questions to those who insist on a two-stage Christian initiation, since it is certain that Luke is describing Cornelius’ conversion, and not his second, post-conversion baptism of the Spirit. For Peter preached the gospel to him, and Cornelius is said to have repented (11:18) and believed (15:7, 9). What he experienced is also called interchangeably either ‘receiving’ the gift of the Spirit (10:45, 47; 11:17) or being ‘baptized’ with the Spirit (11:16). In fact, Cornelius’ water-baptism signified and sealed the total salvation (11:14) which God had given him, including both the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit (10:43, 45), as on the Day of Pentecost (2:38).
Tomorrow: Lessons to learn (continued)

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.