When Peter got to the end of this sermon he gave what I would call an application or invitation, though he does so cautiously and even indirectly. Peter said, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (v. 43).
Sometimes you hear people talking about different kinds of gospels. In the last century there was something called “the gospel of inevitable progress.” It was a secular philosophy, having to do with Darwinism and the industrial revolution. But it also had a religious version which maintained that Jesus came to establish an earthly kingdom and that this kingdom would advance in the world inevitably. Sin was going to be wiped out, and everything was going to be perfect. That was not the real Gospel.
Jesus Christ does have a kingdom, of course. That kingdom will be established. I believe it will even be established upon earth. (Some people disagree with that, although I think that is going to happen.) But the point I am making is that the preaching of an inevitable kingdom to be brought in by the Church is not the Gospel. The Gospel is what we find in Acts 10.
Sometimes people talk about a “social gospel.” There was an emphasis upon that in the earlier decades of this century by men like Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and others. They saw that the social aspects of Christianity had been neglected and began to stress these things. For them and their followers Christianity became feeding the poor, helping the downtrodden, and so on.
Good as some of these things may be, we must nevertheless remember that the Gospel is what we find here: peace with God through the work of Jesus Christ. And this is no imaginary Jesus. He is the one God sent, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit at His baptism, who went about doing good, demonstrating power over Satan and the forces of evil, who was crucified by wicked men, who was raised on the third day, and who will return one day as the judge of all people. This is the Gospel God blesses. Whenever we preach something else, we may indeed produce certain visible results. People may be pleased by it and say, “Isn’t that wonderful!” But it is not the Gospel, and it will not be blessed by God in the rescue of sinners and the changing of human lives. What God uses to turn men and women from a life of sin to righteousness and empower them to live righteously through the Spirit of the living Christ is the Good News of Christ crucified, risen and coming again.
And that is the way the chapter ends: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (v. 44). What message was that? The message of the social gospel? The message of liberation theology? The gospel of inevitable progress? No. It was the message of Christ crucified. It was while they were hearing that message that the Holy Spirit came upon them and saved them.
This was a puzzle to those Jews who had come up from Joppa with Peter, because they could not understand how the Holy Spirit could be poured out “even on the Gentiles” (v. 45). They had been thinking that the Gentiles would have to become Jews first. They had not become Jews, and yet the Holy Spirit came to them, exactly as He had come to the apostles prior to Peter’s first preaching at Pentecost. I put it that way because the Gentiles are at this point brought into an exactly parallel position, not merely with normal Jews (or even Samaritans) who had believed on Jesus, but with the apostles themselves. When Peter preached at Pentecost, people repented, were baptized, and after that the Holy Spirit came upon them. When Peter and John went to Samaria, the people had already believed, but they did not receive the Holy Spirit until the apostles laid their hands on them. Here, the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius—this entirely and unabashedly Gentile congregation—received the Holy Spirit just as the Jewish apostles had received the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room.1
And they were not compelled to be circumcised! Peter looked at them and said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” He meant, “If you can give a reason, here’s the time to do it. Speak up or forever hold your peace.”
“They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (v. 47). Nobody had anything to say. So they baptized them. Thus, without being circumcised, without becoming Jews, they were received rightly, properly, and victoriously into this one great, growing, international and multiracial Church of Jesus Christ.
Peter had to fight it out later when he was criticized for what he had done. And we do the right thing too when we take this same message and proclaim it not just to people like ourselves, but to everyone.
1In some commentaries this chapter is therefore appropriately called “The Gentile Pentecost.”