In church this morning, the new pastor (a former missionary) gave a sermon about evangelism using the entire chapter of Acts 10 as his reference. It was a typical sermon that was highly encouraging every believer to evangelize everyone every time. He emphasized that we never know what God is doing in the life or another person – the checkout worker at the grocery, the barista at the coffee shop, a coworker on the job, or even someone who lives down the street from us. His encouragement was to always be “preaching the gospel” (his words) wherever we are.
What was interesting was that I recently a conversation with a young disciple-maker (I’ll call him Miguel) who was trying to figure out how to “earn a conversation” (his words) with his co-workers. I think that if the pastor had been part of that conversation, Miguel would have been convinced to share the gospel with everyone that he works with because we don’t know what God is doing inside their heart.
That statement about not knowing what God is doing is basically true, especially if we don’t bother to ask someone what’s going on in their heart (not a common conversation in the workplace). However, does Acts chapter 10 support the idea of not only being ready to share, but to initiate (manipulate) the conversation toward the gospel?
Here are some of my thoughts. Acts 10 is the story of a god-fearing, “devout” Gentile soldier living in Caesarea. He is active in his prayer life and support the local Jewish community with alms (better understood as “acts of charity”). One day during his prayer time, an angel appears to let Cornelius know that God has heard his prayers and gave him a task of getting hold of the Apostle Peter.
At this point of the story, we should look at what the angel told Cornelius to do. “Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Peter…” Cornelius handpicked two of his servants, along with a “devout” soldier, to go find Peter who was staying at the home of Simon the tanner.
Here’s my first point. This passage was used to instruct Christians to go and look for a non-Christian that they can share the gospel with. But in the passage, the non-Christian is told to go find Peter, and Luke (the write of Acts) doesn’t include why Cornelius should send for Peter or what to expect. Sure, those instructions might have been included, but we just don’t know.
The point is this passage is about a non-Christian being told to go find a follower of Jesus, not for the follower of Jesus to go find Cornelius. And not for Peter to talk to every person he encounters along the way. I’m not saying that we “can’t” preach the gospel along the way; I’m saying this passage doesn’t support the idea. Instead, this passage supports someone looking to us as believers for information – they may not even know that they’re going to hear the gospel. Cornelius just knows that God has heard his prayers.
The story continues, after the interlude of Peter seeing a sheet of unclean animals and being told to eat of them, with the delegation from Cornelius knocking at Simon the tanner’s door. They tell Peter that Cornelius has been told to send for Peter to hear a message. There’s no indication that these three men even knew what the message would be (although they did apparently know about the angel visit – see verse 8). They’re just relaying the message from Cornelius to Peter.
After spending the night (since they had already traveled 39 miles from Caesarea to Joppa), Peter set out with them for Caesarea. It seems that this journey took two days one-way, since Cornelius will tell Peter that four days had passed from seeing the angel to meeting Peter. The important thing is this: When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, Peter asked, “So I ask for what reason you have sent for me?” (verse 29).
Peter just traveled 39 miles with three strangers (probably not so much strangers after their 2-day “road trip”) and some friends from Joppa without knowing what specific message he was to give to Cornelius.
Here’s my second point. Peter did not take a 2-day trip to share the gospel. Instead, he asked what Cornelius wanted, even though Cornelius was just following the instructions of the angel. We can’t make an assumption that Peter intended to share the gospel without the permission of the hearer (especially to a group of Gentiles). This point is in conflict with what the pastor said this morning, encouraging us to “weave the gospel” into a work conversation.
It’s not that Peter didn’t share the gospel; it’s that he honored the centurion’s purpose rather than forcing his own purpose. Peter could confidently walk into an unknown situation because the Spirit told him to go “without misgivings.” I could perhaps insert point 2.1 with a comment that there’s a mighty big difference between the Spirit telling us to go versus a well-meaning pastor.
The story continues that Cornelius gathered his relatives and close friends (verse 24). We know from verse 2 that not only was Cornelius devout and feared God, but so did his household. This really is a “prepared” audience for Peter – an entire family that was “well-spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews (verse 22).
My third point comes here with the conversion of Cornelius, his family, and friends. While Peter was still speaking about believing in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins (verse 43), the Spirit fell on these Gentiles (verse 44). The Jews who had come with Peter from Joppa were shocked at what happened, but Peter raised the obvious question. Since these Gentiles had just received the Spirit, what could possibly stop them from being baptized (verse 17)?
In most churches today, new believers have to attend baptism training classes before they can be baptized. This text, like the one about Philip and the Ethiopian man near Gaza (Acts 8:26-39), ends with new believers being baptized immediately. And there’s no implication that Peter did the baptizing; he simply ordered that it be done (verse 48).
My point here is that those who are sharing the gospel need to not only be able to communicate it well, but also be ready to immediately baptize the new believer. Yep, sit on that are a minute. I recently saw a woman baptized 30 years after she came to Christ. Why are we waiting?
I’d love to hear your thoughts about these three points as I studied them more diligently today. Perhaps you would answer this question: Who do you know who might ask you to share a message about God with them?
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