We can't pass by Acts 10 without comment today. It is such an important passage of scripture to focus on! We need to focus on what it means. We also need to talk about what it doesn't mean--because it's been misused a lot lately.
This scripture is pivotal in our understanding of how God receives people from all backgrounds. While the Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8:26-40 is (dubiously) called the first Gentile convert, it's not until the Roman centurion Cornelius is converted that Gentile inclusion becomes noteworthy to the church at large. We find the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. In preparation for his mission to Cornelius and his family, Peter is given a vision of a sheet filled with all kinds of clean and unclean animals. Three times, God tells him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Three times, Peter refuses, citing his adherence to Jewish dietary law. God replies, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” When Peter regains his normal senses, he finds that he has visitors at the door. Messengers from Cornelius have come to invite him to their master's house. Normally, Gentile homes were considered unclean by Jews, so Peter would not have accepted the invitation. However, because of the message given to him by the Holy Spirit, Peter accepts. In 10:34-35, Peter says, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right." He then continues to tell them about Jesus. They receive the Lord, and the Holy Spirit falls on them. They are baptized in water, and are welcomed into the family of faith. In chapter 11, we hear Peter relating the account of what happened to other believers. 11:34 says, "When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
I praise God that this story is in the Bible, because it tells how wide God's mercy really is. I'd like to share with you some of the verses in Frederick Faber's hymn, "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy."
1. There's a wideness in God's mercy, Like the wideness of the sea; There's a kindness in His justice, Which is more than liberty. 3. There is welcome for the sinner, And more graces for the good; There is mercy with the Savior; There is healing in His blood. 4. There is grace enough for thousands Of new worlds as great as this; There is room for fresh creations In that upper home of bliss. 5. For the love of God is broader Than the measure of our mind; And the heart of the Eternal Is most wonderfully kind. 6. There is plentiful redemption In the blood that has been shed; There is joy for all the members In the sorrows of the Head. 8. If our love were but more simple, We should take Him at His word; And our lives would be all sunshine In the sweetness of our Lord. 11. But we make His love too narrow By false limits of our own; And we magnify His strictness With a zeal He will not own. 12. Was there ever kinder shepherd Half so gentle, half so sweet, As the Savior who would have us Come and gather at His feet?
What beautiful wideness in God's mercy! What an astounding grace and forgiveness God offers to all who will seek Him with their whole heart! We are so blessed because of God's amazing grace, which is available to all who will repent and turn from their sins--regardless of their background. It's true that God shows no partiality in permitting anybody to come to Him.
The problem is that Acts 10-11 has been greatly misused of late. Acts 11:34 clearly states the intention of Peter's vision and his experience with Cornelius. This was to show that Gentiles are welcome in Christ's Kingdom. Just like Jews, Gentiles can receive God's forgiveness. Jews and Gentiles--that means everybody! That is the meaning. There is no other meaning.
Lately, I've heard people using Acts 10 in order to justify homosexuality. "What God has called clean, don't call unclean," they say. Proponents of accepting homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle say that just as Gentiles used to be on the outside yet were brought in by a movement of the Holy Spirit, now the Spirit is doing a new thing and including LGBTQ folks. The problem with this argument is that the Bible never says it's a sin to be a practicing Gentile. There are, however, many scriptures that label homosexual behavior as sin. Can God bring homosexuals into the fold? Of course--just the same way that God brings anybody in. They must receive Jesus as their savior and repent and turn from their sin. The Holy Spirit doesn't take a sin and suddenly call it clean. By the same argument, you could say, "The Spirit is sanctifying rape, so don't call rapists clean anymore." Or, "the Spirit has declared that pedophilia and incest are now okay, so let's include them, too." Now, does God love LGBTQ folks? Yes--just like He loves monogamous heterosexual married folks and rapists and pedophiles. He wants to save us all from our sins. But first we must acknowledge our sin as sin. You can't use the Bible to say whatever you want to say. Acts 10 means that Gentiles are included. That's all it means.
I've also heard people who stop their reading at Acts 10:34-35. They say, "See, God has no favorites. Everybody from any background is acceptable to God--whether they receive Jesus as their Savior or not." This is a clear misunderstanding of the scripture. Cornelius wasn't a Roman pagan who wanted to continue being a Roman pagan, except that He wanted to be accepted by the Jewish God as well. No, Cornelius was a Gentile who believed in Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But that wasn't even enough. Peter didn't say, "Cornelius, now that you've converted from paganism and are now monotheistic, you're saved." Instead, He said, "Your background doesn't prevent you from coming to faith in Christ..." and then Peter told Cornelius all about Jesus. Salvation is so that everybody might be saved, but that doesn't mean that just because everybody is welcome in God's Kingdom, they will receive His gift of eternal life. To say, "See--everyone is acceptable, and that means everyone is saved" is too far of a leap. But unfortunately, it's a leap that I've heard some people make. You've got to read the rest of the chapter, and the following chapter as well. You've got to take Peter's message in its entirety, for the apostle also said about Jesus, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12 NIV)."
So, there is a wideness in God's mercy. That wideness means that nobody is prevented from coming to Jesus for salvation. But salvation is only available through Jesus. And for that salvation, people must receive Jesus as their Savior, repent, and turn from their sin. Jesus' acceptance of a person doesn't mean that He accepts their sin. It means that He wants to heal them of that sin. And until we recognize our sin as sin, we can never be set free from its grasp.
I've heard two statements, both of which are true. "All are welcome at the foot of the cross," and "The ground is level at the foot of the cross." There is a wideness in God's mercy. I hope that you will throw yourself upon His mercy today. I hope that you will extend it to others as well.