Life of Peter, by N.E. Rhodes Jr. — No. 28


There are many preachers today who would have been at a complete loss as to just what to preach to Cornelius. Suppose Peter had preached to him concerning righteousness, and purity, and honesty and decency. What good would that have been to Cornelius? He was already a devout man and a decent man. He was an honest man and a pure man. He had been trying very hard already to be a righteous man and yet his heart was still not satisfied. In spite of all his efforts toward a Godly life he knew that something was lacking and it was this lack that he was seeking to fill. On the other hand Peter might have spent his time complimenting Cornelius on his devout life and talking about how lost others were who did not share such a way of life. I fail to see however how this would have helped Cornelius.

Imagine Peter being somehow separated from his guides on the way to Caesarea. Arriving in town he would find some disciple that lived there and ask him how to find the house of Cornelius. When asked why he was looking for Cornelius he would have explained that he wanted to preach the Gospel to him. Can’t you imagine what a less thoughtful disciple might have said.

“But why, Peter, go preach to Cornelius of all people? Don’t you know that he is already one of the best men in Caesarea? If a man like Cornelius isn’t saved already there is no use the rest of us even trying. Why don’t you go down to skid row and preach to the drunks and prostitutes? Why don’t you go to the synagogue and preach to some of the hypocrites there? A man like Cornelius does not need baptism. He is a good man already. So long as a man is honest and truthful and a good man like Cornelius he does not need to go to church and go through all that bunch of ritual. Leave him alone.”

Salvation is Available to All

Yet Peter knew, and Cornelius knew, and God knew that Cornelius needed Christ. He needed the church and he needed the Holy Spirit. If Cornelius needed these then it pretty well goes without saying that all of us do too. Peter knew exactly what to preach to Cornelius. Cornelius knew what he wanted to hear. “Now therefore we are all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.” Cornelius wanted to hear the word of God. Peter preached unto him Jesus. He spoke of the cross and the resurrection. He spoke of faith and remission of sins. While he yet spake the Holy Spirit fell upon them. But even so Peter did not feel that their obedience was complete. We read in Acts 10:48, “And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.”

Salvation is Needed by All

From the story of Cornelius then we learn two vital truths. Salvation is available to all men. All men need to be saved. God does not exist just for a favored few in any particular time or place or condition. God exists for all. There is no man so good or so great that he does not need the cross of Christ. The sermon Peter preached to Cornelius is one that applies to all men seeking salvation. Of course it probably would not win any homiletic prizes in today’s preacher factories. I doubt it would be chosen for publication in “Best Sermon From Protestant Pulpits.” It was somewhat lacking in clever attacks on other types of thought. It didn’t quote from the best literary sources or outstanding philosophers. It quoted from the Old Testament and told the simple facts about Jesus Christ. It went on to tell Cornelius exactly what these facts had to do with him. It was exactly what Cornelius needed. It is still what the world needs.

With the baptism of Cornelius, Peter’s work on his behalf is not over. He must now convince his Jewish brethren that they should accept this Gentile and other Gentiles. He had won his battle with his own prejudice but now he had another coming with the prejudice of his brethren. It is unpopular not to share men’s prejudices. It is social suicide to try to persuade them to give them up. It speaks well for the early church that Peter was so successful in his efforts. But his success was a partial one even so. For many years the status of the Gentile and duty to the law of Moses was a burning issue in the church. The sect of the Ebionites came as a result of this controversy and did not die out till 150 A.D. It was this question that the disciples met to discuss in Acts 15 and here again Peter argued for the acceptance of the Gentiles and their freedom from the law. This was the great battle that Paul had to fight constantly. The one time that Paul blames Peter, it was over this matter. It seems that at least once Peter weakened in his position and in order to pacify Jewish brethren separated himself from Gentile brethren. But the fact still remains that it was Peter and not Paul that first carried the Gospel to Gentiles and first defended their right to hear and obey it.

It is significant that the first great debate the church ever had stemmed from prejudice. It is significant that though the Apostles decided on the matter at Jerusalem it continued to be a matter of controversy for many years. It is significant that even the great Apostle Peter found himself swayed by his Jewish brethren’s prejudice even after he had helped to form the decision against that prejudice.

There is not a great deal more told of Peter in the New Testament. We have left only the account of his amazing jailbreak as told in Acts 12. We shall consider that in our next article and then we shall proceed to a study of Peter’s message to Christians as given in the two New Testament epistles he wrote. We have discussed already the message he took to the world in this chapter. It is well that we should have first studied Peter the man for only so may we hope to fully understand Peter’s message.

From Acts 13 on, the New Testament gives us far more of the activities and thinking of Paul than it does of that of Peter. But we know Peter continued to be active. We can gather that from the references made about him in the epistles of Paul. Tradition has some interesting stories about the death of Peter but all we can know for sure is that, according to the prophecy of Christ, he died a martyr’s death. From what I have learned of Peter I believe it is the kind of death he would have chosen.

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