We have here Peter’s sermon preached to Cornelius and his friends: that is, an abstract or summary of it; for we have reason to think that he did with many other words testify and exhort to this purport. It is intimated that he expressed himself with a great deal of solemnity and gravity, but with freedom and copiousness, in that phrase, he opened his mouth, and spoke, Acts 10:34. O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open to you, saith Paul, 2 Cor. 6:11. “You shall find us communicative, if we but find you inquisitive.” Hitherto the mouths of the apostles had been shut to the uncircumcised Gentiles, they had nothing to say to them; but now God gave unto them, as he did to Ezekiel, the opening of the mouth. This excellent sermon of Peter’s is admirably suited to the circumstances of those to whom he preached it; for it was a new sermon.
I. Because they were Gentiles to whom he preached. He shows that, notwithstanding this, they were interested in the gospel of Christ, which he had to preach, and entitled to the benefit of it, upon an equal footing with the Jews. It was necessary that this should be cleared, or else with what comfort could either he preach or they hear? He therefore lays down this as an undoubted principle, that God is no respecter of persons; doth not know favour in judgment, as the Hebrew phrase is; which magistrates are forbidden to do (Deut. 1:17; 16:19; Prov. 24:23), and are blamed for doing, Ps. 82:2. And it is often said of God that he doth not respect persons, Deut. 10:17; 2 Chron. 19:7; Job 34:19; Rom. 2:11; Col. 3:25; 1 Pet. 1:17. He doth not give judgment in favour of a man for the sake of any external advantage foreign to the merits of the cause. God never perverts judgment upon personal regards and considerations, nor countenances a wicked man in a wicked thing for the sake of his beauty, or stature, his country, parentage, relations, wealth, or honour in the world. God, as a benefactor, gives favours arbitrarily and by sovereignty (Deut. 7:7, 8; 9:5, 6; Matt. 20:10); but he does not, as a judge, so give sentence; but in every nation, and under ever denomination, he that fears God and works righteousness is accepted of him, Acts 10:35. The case is plainly thus—
1. God never did, nor ever will, justify and save a wicked Jew that lived and died impenitent, though he was of the seed of Abraham, and a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and had all the honour and advantages that attended circumcision. He does and will render indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil; and of the Jew first, whose privileges and professions, instead of screening him from the judgment of God, will but aggravate his guilt and condemnation. See Rom. 2:3, 8, 9, 17. Though God has favoured the Jews, above other nations, with the dignities of visible church-membership, yet he will not therefore accept of any particular persons of that dignity, if they allow themselves in immoralities contradictory to their profession; and particularly in persecution, which was now, more than any other, the national sin of the Jews.
2. He never did, nor ever will, reject or refuse an honest Gentile, who, though he has not the privileges and advantages that the Jews have, yet, like Cornelius, fears God, and worships him, and works righteousness, that is, is just and charitable towards all men, who lives up to the light he has, both in a sincere devotion and in a regular conversation. Whatever nation he is of, though ever so far remote from kindred to the seed of Abraham, though ever so despicable, nay, though in ever so ill a name, that shall be no prejudice to him. God judges of men by their hearts, not by their country or parentage; and, wherever he finds an upright man, he will be found an upright God, Ps. 18:25. Observe, Fearing God, and working righteousness, must go together; for, as righteousness towards men is a branch of true religion, so religion towards God is a branch of universal righteousness. Godliness and honesty must go together, and neither will excuse for the want of the other. But, where these are predominant, no doubt is to be made of acceptance with God. Not that any man, since the fall, can obtain the favour of God otherwise than through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and by the grace of God in him; but those that have not the knowledge of him, and therefore cannot have an explicit regard to him, may yet receive grace from God for his sake, to fear God and to work righteousness; and wherever God gives grace to do so, as he did to Cornelius, he will, through Christ, accept the work of his own hands. Now, (1.) This was always a truth, before Peter perceived it, that God respecteth no man’s person; it was the fixed rule of judgment from the beginning: If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And, if not well, sin, and the punishment of it, lie at the door, Gen. 4:7. God will not ask in the great day what country men were of, but what they were, what they did, and how they stood affected towards him and towards their neighbours; and, if men’s personal characters received neither advantage nor disadvantage from the great difference that existed between Jews and Gentiles, much less from any less difference of sentiments and practices that may happen to be among Christians themselves, as those about meats and days, Rom. 14:1-23. It is certain the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost; and he that in these things serveth Christ is accepted of God, and ought to be approved of men; for dare we reject those whom God doth not? (2.) Yet now it was made more clear than it had been; this great truth had been darkened by the covenant of peculiarity made with Israel, and the badges of distinction put upon them; the ceremonial law was a wall of partition between them and other nations; it is true that in it God favoured that nation (Rom. 3:1, 2; 9:4), and thence particular persons among them were ready to infer that they were sure of God’s acceptance, though they lived as they listed, and that no Gentile could possibly be accepted of God. God had said a great deal by the prophets to prevent and rectify this mistake, but now at length he doth it effectually, by abolishing the covenant of peculiarity, repealing the ceremonial law, and so setting the matter at large, and placing both Jew and Gentile upon the same level before God; and Peter is here made to perceive it, by comparing the vision which he had with that which Cornelius had. Now in Christ Jesus, it is plain, neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, Gal. 5:6; Col. 3:11.
II. Because they were Gentiles inhabiting a place within the confines of the land of Israel, he refers them to what they themselves could not but know concerning the life and doctrine, the preaching and miracles, the death and sufferings of our Lord Jesus: for these were things the report of which spread into every corner of the nation, Acts 10:37 It facilitates the work of ministers, when they deal with such as have some knowledge of the things of God, to which they may appeal, and on which they may build.
1. They knew in general, the word, that is, the gospel, which God sent to the children of Israel: That word, I say, you know, Acts 10:37. Though the Gentiles were not admitted to hear it (Christ and his disciples were not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel), yet they could not but hear of it: it was all the talk both of city and country. We are often told in the gospels how the fame of Christ went into all parts of Canaan, when he was on earth, as afterwards the fame of his gospel went into all parts of the world, Rom. 10:18. That word, that divine word, that word of power and grace, you know. (1.) What the purport of this word was. God by it published the glad tidings of peace by Jesus Christ, so it should be read—euangelizomenos eirenev. It is God himself that proclaims peace, who justly might have proclaimed war. He lets the world of mankind know that he is willing to be at peace with them through Jesus Christ; in him he was reconciling the world to himself. (2.) To whom it was sent—to the children of Israel, in the first place. The prime offer is made to them; this all their neighbours heard of, and were ready to envy them those advantages of the gospel, more than they ever envied them those of their law. Then said they among the heathen, The Lord hath done great things for them, Ps. 126:2.
2. They knew the several matters of fact relating to this word of the gospel sent to Israel. (1.) They knew the baptism of repentance which John preached by way of introduction to it, and in which the gospel first began, Mark 1:1. They knew what an extraordinary man John was, and what a direct tendency his preaching had to prepare the way of the Lord. They knew what great flocking there was to his baptism, what an interest he had, and what he did. (2.) They knew that immediately after John’s baptism the gospel of Christ, that word of peace, was published throughout all Judea, and that it took its rise from Galilee. The twelve apostles, and seventy disciples, and our Master himself, published these glad tidings in all parts of the land; so that we may suppose there was not a town or village in all the land of Canaan but had had the gospel preached in it. (3.) They knew that Jesus of Nazareth, when he was here upon earth, went about doing good. They knew what a benefactor he was to that nation, both to the souls and the bodies of men; how he made it his business to do good to all, and never did hurt to any. He was not idle, but still doing; not selfish, but doing good; did not confine himself to one place, nor wait till people came to him to seek his help, but went to them, went about from place to place, and wherever he came he was doing good. Hereby he showed that he was sent of God, who is good and does good; and does good because he is good: and who hereby left not himself without witness to the world, in that he did good, Acts 14:17. And in this he hath set us an example of indefatigable industry in serving God and our generation; for we came into the world that we might do all the good we can in it; and therein, like Christ, we must always abide and abound. (4.) They knew more particularly that he healed all that were oppressed of the devil, and helped them from under his oppressing power. By this it appeared not only that he was sent of God, as it was a kindness to men, but that he was sent to destroy the works of the devil; for thus he obtained many a victory over him. (5.) They knew that the Jews put him to death; they slew him by hanging him on a tree. When Peter preached to the Jews, he said whom you slew; but now that he preached to the Gentiles it is whom they slew; they, to whom he had done and designed so much good. All this they knew; but lest they should think it was only a report, and was magnified, as reports usually are, more than the truth, Peter, for himself and the rest of the apostles, attested it (Acts 10:39): We are witnesses, eye-witnesses, of all things which he did; and ear-witnesses of the doctrine which he preached, both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, in city and country.
3. They did know, or might know, by all this, that he had a commission from heaven to preach and act as he did. This he still harps upon in his discourse, and takes all occasions to hint it to them. Let them know, (1.) That this Jesus is Lord of all; it comes in in a parenthesis, but is the principal proposition intended to be proved, that Jesus Christ, by whom peace is made between God and man, is Lord of all; not only as God over all blessed for evermore, but as Mediator, all power both in heaven and on earth is put into his hand, and all judgment committed to him. He is Lord of angels; they are all his humble servants. He is Lord of the powers of darkness, for he hath triumphed over them. He is king of nations, has a power over all flesh. He is king of saints, all the children of God are his scholars, his subjects, his soldiers. (2.) That God anointed him with the Holy Ghost and with power; he was both authorized and enabled to do what he did by a divine anointing, whence he was called Christ—the Messiah, the anointed One. The Holy Ghost descended upon him at his baptism, and he was full of power both in preaching and working miracles, which was the seal of a divine mission. (3.) That God was with him, Acts 10:38. His works were wrought in God. God not only sent him, but was present with him all along, owned him, stood by him, and carried him on in all his services and sufferings. Note, Those whom God anoints he will accompany; he will himself be with those to whom he has given his Spirit.
III. Because they had had no more certain information concerning this Jesus, Peter declares to them his resurrection from the dead, and the proofs of it, that they might not think that when he was slain there was an end of him. Probably, they had heard at Cesarea some talk of his having risen from the dead; but the talk of it was soon silenced by that vile suggestion of the Jews, that his disciples came by night and stole him away. And therefore Peter insists upon this as the main support of that word which preacheth peace by Jesus Christ. 1. The power by which he arose is incontestably divine (Acts 10:40): Him God raised up the third day, which not only disproved all the calumnies and accusations he was laid under by men, but effectually proved God’s acceptance of the satisfaction he made for the sin of man by the blood of his cross. He did not break prison, but had a legal discharge. God raised him up. 2. The proofs of his resurrection were incontestably clear; for God showed him openly. He gave him to be made manifest—edoken auton emphane genesthai, to be visible, evidently so; so he appears, as that it appears beyond contradiction to be him, and not another. It was such a showing of him as amounted to a demonstration of the truth of his resurrection. He showed him not publicly indeed (it was not open in this sense), but evidently; not to all the people, who had been the witnesses of his death. By resisting all the evidences he had given them of his divine mission in his miracles, they had forfeited the favour of being eye-witnesses of this great proof of it. Those who immediately forged and promoted that lie of his being stolen away were justly given up to strong delusions to believe it, and not suffered to be undeceived by his being shown to all the people; and so much the greater shall be the blessedness of those who have not seen, and yet have believed—Nec ille se in vulgus edixit, ne impii errore, liberarentur; ut et fides non praemio mediocri destinato difficultate constaret—He showed not himself to the people at large, lest the impious among them should have been forthwith loosed from their error, and that faith, the reward of which is so ample, might be exercised with a degree of difficulty.—Tertul. Apol. cap. 11. But, though all the people did not see him, a sufficient number saw him to attest the truth of his resurrection. The testator’s declaring his last will and testament needs not to be before all the people; it is enough that it be done before a competent number of credible witnesses; so the resurrection of Christ was proved before sufficient witnesses. (1.) They were not so by chance, but they were chosen before of God to be witnesses of it, and, in order to this, had their education under the Lord Jesus, and intimate converse with him, that, having known him so intimately before, they might the better be assured it was he. (2.) They had not a sudden and transient view of him, but a great deal of free conversation with him: They did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead. This implies that they saw him eat and drink, witness their dining with him at the sea of Tiberias, and the two disciples supping with him at Emmaus; and this proved that he had a true and real body. But this was not all; they saw him without any terror or consternation, which might have rendered them incompetent witnesses, for they saw him so frequently, and he conversed with them so familiarly, that they did eat and drink with him. It is brought as a proof of the clear view which the nobles of Israel had of the glory of God (Exod. 24:11), that they saw God, and did eat and drink.
IV. He concludes with an inference from all this, that therefore that which they all ought to do was to believe in this Jesus: he was sent to tell Cornelius what he must do, and it is this; his praying and his giving alms were very well, but one thing he lacked, he must believe in Christ. Observe,
1. Why he must believe in him. Faith has reference to a testimony, and the Christian faith is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, it is built upon the testimony given by them. (1.) By the apostles. Peter as foreman speaks for the rest, that God commanded them, and gave them in charge, to preach to the people, and to testify concerning Christ; so that their testimony was not only credible, but authentic, and what we may venture upon. Their testimony is God’s testimony; and they are his witnesses to the world. They do not only say it as matter of news, but testify it as matter of record, by which men must be judged. (2.) By the prophets of the Old Testament, whose testimony beforehand, not only concerning his sufferings, but concerning the design and intention of them, very much corroborates the apostles’ testimony concerning them (Acts 10:43): To him give all the prophets witness. We have reason to think that Cornelius and his friends were no strangers to the writings of the prophets. Out of the mouth of these two clouds of witnesses, so exactly agreeing, this word is established.
2. What they must believe concerning him. (1.) That we are all accountable to Christ as our Judge; this the apostles were commanded to testify to the world, that this Jesus is ordained of God to be the Judge of the quick and dead, Acts 10:42. He is empowered to prescribe the terms of salvation, that rule by which we must be judged, to give laws both to quick and dead, both to Jew and Gentile; and he is appointed to determine the everlasting condition of all the children of men at the great day, of those that shall be found alive and of those that shall be raised from the dead. He hath assured us of this, in that he hath raised him from the dead (Acts 17:31), so that it is the great concern of every one of us, in the belief of this, to seek his favour, and to make him our friend. (2.) That if we believe in him we shall all be justified by him as our righteousness, Acts 10:43. The prophets, when they spoke of the death of Christ, did witness this, that through his name, for his sake, and upon the account of his merit, whosoever believeth in him, Jew or Gentile, shall receive remission of sins. This is the great thing we need, without which we are undone, and which the convinced conscience is most inquisitive after, which the carnal Jews promised themselves from their ceremonial sacrifices and purifications, yea, and the heathen too from their atonements, but all in vain; it is to be had only through the name of Christ, and only by those that believe in his name; and those that do so may be assured of it; their sins shall be pardoned, and there shall be no condemnation to them. And the remission of sins lays a foundation for all other favours and blessings, by taking that out of the way which hinders them. If sin be pardoned, all is well, and shall end everlastingly well.
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