“What The Centurion Can Teach Us” (Acts 10 sermon)

Well I learned something new this week: Cheryl & I had dinner with Chris & Gina Bailey, and she made the best homemade eggrolls. I asked her what was in them, and one of the ingredients she mentioned was “white pepper.” I had never heard of white pepper before — but it was great!

There are so many things in this world, and God has given people such a variety of gifts and abilities, that there is always something you can learn from every single person — and if we are wise, we will listen and learn.
This week we read one of the great stories in the New Testament, of Cornelius the centurion. And there are some very important lessons that this centurion has to teach us:


I. The Need For Christ

This is one of the most important lessons of this chapter, and it is a lesson that is very needed in our day. This centurion, Cornelius, was what many people would call a “good man.” Verse 2 says he was “devout” and “one who feared God with all his household and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.” He would be considered a “pretty good guy.” We might say he was more “religious” than a lot of people who attend our churches these days!

And here’s the danger: there are an increasing number of people today who say that people like this all over the world: supposedly “good” people; religious people; who just don’t happen to know Jesus, will be saved and go to heaven, even though they don’t know Jesus. I have even heard some who adhere to this view, mention Cornelius the Centurion in Acts 10 as an example of the kind of person God would save apart from Jesus.

But here’s the thing. This man obviously did have at least SOME good things going for him: he had some kind of reverence for God; he prayed; he gave alms to the Jews; all that — so if all those things justified him, and would take him to heaven, then WHY did God go to such extreme lengths in Acts 10, to get the gospel message of Jesus to Cornelius? Why send him a vision and have him send two men to go all the way (pretty much a two day journey on foot, 30 miles) to Joppa to where Peter was? Why send Peter a vision, and then send him and a company of others all the way back to Caesarea Philippi? Why have Cornelius gather all his family and friends, and have Peter share the gospel with them?

WHY do all this — unless all of Cornelius’ good works still weren’t enough to save him; and unless there was only one way of salvation, and that was through the message of Jesus that Peter would share with him. And that is exactly the case.

See, people are fond of making objections, like: “Well, what about the good, pagan person out there, who is righteous and just; they just haven’t heard about Jesus? What about all those ‘good’ people in the world who haven’t heard?” The problem with that, the Bible says, is that there AREN’T any “good people”!
We’ve seen that as we’ve read Psalms, haven’t we? We read Psalm 53 just the other day, which says in :2, “God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there is anyone who understands, who seeks after God. Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
Romans 3 quotes this in the New Testament: “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside; together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

That’s why God went to all those lengths to send Peter to Cornelius — because for all the good qualities he may have had, Cornelius was still a sinner, who had fallen short of what it took to get to heaven, and the only way he could be saved was by putting his faith in Jesus as his Lord & Savior.

No, far from teaching that “good people” go to heaven without Jesus, one of the most powerful lessons of this chapter is that there is no salvation apart from Christ! You’d be hard-pressed to find a more godly lost person than Cornelius — but he was still lost, and he still needed to Jesus to be saved! And so do you!

That is the CLEAR message of the New Testament: we must have Jesus to be saved. Jesus is not “optional.” He is not “a way” to heaven; He is THE way; He said, “I am THE way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.”
And Jesus’ disciples proclaimed in Acts 4:12 “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

John the Apostle echoed this at the end of his first letter: he said in I John 5:12, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does NOT have the life.” This is very clear, isn’t it: if you have Jesus, you have eternal life; if you do NOT have Jesus, you do NOT have eternal life.

Listen: there is a war raging today. Satan is throwing everything he has at Christianity in America today, to get us to doubt and to compromise what God’s word clearly says:
— about creation
— about marriage
— about sexuality
— about the life of the unborn child
— about virtually any issue
— and this issue of Jesus as the only way is one he is hitting at the hardest. Because if we cave in on this, we take all the fire out of evangelism and missions: why share Christ? Why go on mission? Why bother about praying for lost people, or try to lead anybody to Jesus? What if God shows you or me today some “Cornelius” He wants us to share Jesus with — why do it, if they’re good enough and they don’t need Jesus and they’ll just be saved anyway? There would be no motivation for evangelism. And Satan knows it.

And he also knows if we compromise on this — or marriage or sexuality or any of these other issues that the Bible speaks so clearly on, and which no one who takes this word seriously can doubt — then we may as well throw this book out and never darken the door of a church again. And in fact that IS what happens when churches give up these beliefs; they die. Mainstream “churches” that gave up their belief in the inspiration of the word of God, and salvation only through Jesus are dwindling down to nothing. And that just makes sense. If I didn’t believe that Jesus was the only way, and that this word was true, then quite honestly I wouldn’t mess with it. Go “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” You’d better go have fun while you can — IF Jesus is not the only way.

But God makes it very clear here in Acts 10 and all throughout His word, that Jesus IS the only way to God. If that’s so — and it is — then the most important question in all the world then becomes: Are you on that way? If only “he who has the Son has the life,” then do YOU have the Son? Is Jesus in your life? You say, “Well, I go to church, and I do some good things, and say some prayers, and give some offerings …”. Cornelius did all that — probably better than YOU do! — but he wasn’t saved. And neither are you! You’ve got to have Christ. Confess the sins in your life that have been keeping you away from God. Trust that Jesus’ death on the cross saves you and makes you right with God. Call out to Him right now to save you, and commit your life to follow Him. You will never be saved; and you will never see heaven without Jesus. THE single most important lesson of this chapter, is the need that we all have for Christ.


II. The Acceptance of All

A second lesson Peter learned in this encounter with the centurion is that God wanted this man in His kingdom, even though he was a Gentile. When it was all over Peter said in :34-35 “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.”

One of the things this teaches us, is that Peter HADN’T understood this before. Peter and the other Jews thought that Jesus had come only for them, as God’s chosen people. The Jews had grown up with a strong racial prejudice against the “Gentiles” (“Gentiles” are basically all the nations of the world besides Jews.) The Jews called them the “Gentile dogs.” They didn’t think God wanted THESE people in His kingdom!

You can see how strong this prejudice was, when after he preached to Cornelius and his friends here, Peter went back to Jerusalem in Chapter 11, and the church there basically chewed him out for what he’d done: “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Peter was “in trouble” for even going to these Gentiles! Even this great early church in Jerusalem had this strong prejudice against the Gentiles.

Many believe this is why we see here in this chapter a separate “Gentile Pentecost” — because the Jews would never have accepted the Gentiles into the church otherwise. But when the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles just like He did at Pentecost, Peter said in :47, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” In Chapter 11 he told the church at Jerusalem, “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did us at the beginning.” And then :18 says “When they heard this, they quieted down and said, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” That shows us that they probably would NEVER have accepted these people into the church, had this not happened. So God didn’t give Acts 10 to be our pattern every time someone is saved today; He gave that “repeat Pentecost experience” to the Gentiles (and then later to the Samaritans) to show everyone that these people TOO had been accepted by Him, and that God will receive ALL who come to Him in Christ: Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, ANYBODY! God was teaching them that “in every nation” whoever comes to Jesus, can be saved.

This is lesson is important for us today, too. You don’t have to look far into comments on Facebook or Twitter to see that racial and ethnic prejudice is still with us today. When sin first came into the world one of its devastating results was that it turned people against each other: right there at the beginning, Cain turned against his brother Abel and murdered him. That’s what sin does; it turns people against each other. And sin has not changed over the centuries. It still turns people against each other in hatred and prejudice.

But God shows us here that there is no room in His kingdom for racial prejudice. As Peter said, “In every nation the man who fears Him … is welcome to Him.” And throughout the New Testament, God reinforces this teaching:
Colossians 3:11 says: “There is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” God makes it clear: there are to be no racial distinctions in the church of God. People of all races will be saved and welcomed into His kingdom.

In Revelation 5:9, the elders of heaven praise Jesus, saying: “For You … purchased with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Did you catch that? The same Jesus who bought you with His blood, if you are a Christian, with that SAME blood, bought men from:
— EVERY tribe
— EVERY tongue
— EVERY people, and
— EVERY nation. EVERY one! There is no nation in this world which will not have someone in heaven whom Jesus has saved. There is someone from every nation and race who is your brother and sister in Christ. Therefore there is no nation or race which we should despise. God does not despise them; He loves them: “For God so loved the WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son, that WHOEVER believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Revelation says that heaven will be full of people from every race and nation. I remember when I was in New York on a mission trip several years ago. We were riding the subway to the Bronx, to the school where we were ministering, and I was talking with an older school administrator who was commuting on the subway, and she said: “I love the subway; look around, and you will see that on this one train, there are people of every color, race, and economic background.” I looked around, and it was true. And I told her: “That’s what heaven is going to be like.”

The Bible says heaven IS going to be just like that subway car: “Every tribe, every tongue, every people, every nation.” Cornelius showed Peter, and all of us, that there is acceptance for ALL nations and races in Jesus Christ.


III. Salvation By Faith

:44 “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.”

We’ve talked about this passage several times recently, so we won’t spend a lot of time here today. But this is one of the greatest examples in all of scripture of how salvation comes to us by God’s grace through faith ALONE.

Look at this passage: what had Cornelius and his friends DONE, that God would save them and send His Spirit into their lives like that?
— They hadn’t been baptized yet; they didn’t command them to be baptized until :48
— They hadn’t done any good works yet; they were just standing there listening to the message.
But :44 says “while Peter was still speaking these words (“everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins”) the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.”

The Bible tells us in Ephesians 1:13 and elsewhere that when we are saved, the Holy Spirit comes into our life. We often call that “asking Jesus into our heart;” technically it’s the Holy Spirit of Jesus who comes in, but it’s ok to say “ask Jesus into your heart.” But lesson we need to learn here is that it happens the moment you believe in your heart. WHEN did the Holy Spirit come upon Cornelius and his friends? Not when they “did” anything; or “gave” anything; or “earned or deserved” anything; just the moment they believed the message in their heart, that SECOND — the Spirit of God came into their lives and they were saved.

And the same thing is true for you. The second you believe in your heart, you are saved. You don’t have to do anything; there is no “waiting period.” I remember one time we were changing our medical insurance, and there was a “gap” in the time we were covered, and I just kind of held my breath until that time had passed.

Well there is no “waiting period” for salvation. You don’t have to wait until you are a certain age; you don’t have to wait until you are baptized; you don’t have to wait until you walk down the aisle to tell the preacher. I remember a lady in our church in Louisiana who realized she was lost, and she said “I was on pins and needles, hoping Jesus wouldn’t come back before I could go down front to the preacher at the invitation and be saved.” Listen, you don’t have to wait to go down front and be saved! It’s important that you tell someone when you’ve followed Christ, and that you are baptized, but salvation doesn’t happen when you tell the preacher, or get baptized. Salvation happens the moment you believe it in your heart.

The thief on the cross is a good example of that. He was dying there on the cross; he couldn’t do any good works; but that second he believed in Jesus, Jesus said to him: “Truly I say to you, this day you will be with Me in Paradise.” The second you believe it in your heart, you are saved.

It’s just like the old hymn says: “The vilest offender who truly believes, THAT MOMENT from Jesus a pardon receives.” Cornelius teaches us salvation is by faith; the moment we believe.


IV. The Obedience of Baptism

:48 “And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

This is a strong word, isn’t it? “He ORDERED them to be baptized.” Obviously baptism must have been important, for him to have “ordered” them to do it. We need this word today. Sometimes we Baptists are fond of saying things like: “Baptism is ‘just a symbol.’” Well, we DO believe baptism is symbolic. It is not the physical act of baptism that saves us; as I Peter 3:21 says, it is not “the removal of dirt from the flesh” that saves us; that is true. But we also need to be careful when we say that baptism “just” a symbol. It is not “just” a symbol; Jesus commanded all of His followers to do it. It is a very important symbol of a person’s commitment to Him as their Lord & Savior.

It’s like the American flag. That flag is a symbol; but many of us would say that it’s not “just” a symbol; it is very important symbol, of everything that our nation stands for, and the men who fought and died to preserve us a nation. That’s why many of us get pretty upset when others disrespect the flag, or burn it, or refuse to stand for the national anthem. It’s not “just a symbol;” it is a precious symbol of our faith in and our commitment to our country. The way you treat the flag; that symbol of our country, says a lot about your commitment and belief in our nation.

Well it’s the same things with baptism. Baptism doesn’t save us. Baptism is a symbol. But just like our flag, baptism is not “just” a symbol. It is a very important symbol of your commitment to Jesus as your Lord & Savior:
— Going down into the water pictures the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus
— It pictures the washing away of our sin
— Baptism was the “profession of faith” in New Testament Christianity. That’s where you confessed Jesus publicly — in baptism. And it still is. In many places in the world today, it is THE symbol of your break with your old life, and the seriousness of your commitment to Christ.

Nik Ripken was a Southern Baptist missionary to Somalia, one of the most difficult places to evangelize in the world. He said in 1991 there were 150 Muslims who had become Christians there, but 7 years later all but 4 of them had been killed by the Muslims. The persecution there is intense.
(By the way: a week from Wednesday night we will be starting a 3-part video series on Nik Ripken’s experience, entitled: “The Insanity of God.” After he lost his son in Somalia, Ripken began to travel around the world to persecuted areas, asking believers if it was worth it to suffer and even die for their faith in Jesus. In this video he shares what he discovered. His answer is, if Jesus has really risen from the dead, then any sacrifice we make for Him is worth it. It is a powerful video, and it will challenge to us to be witnesses for the Lord right here where we are, and because of its emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus it will be a great way for us to lead up to Easter.)
In his travels, Ripken interviewed many Muslims who had been persecuted for their faith, and here’s what he wrote:

“A repeated emphasis through almost three hundred interviews with (Muslim Background Believers) was the intensification of persecution immediately following the believer’s baptism. Up to that point, it was not unusual for a “seeker” to be allowed to study the Bible, listen to Christian radio programming, attend a Christian Background Believer (CBB) church, and even to meet regularly and openly with western missionaries. Obviously, in some cases, there was significant resistance to such practices. But this often low-key persecution paled in comparison to the overt and intense persecution that began to surface immediately after the MBB experienced believer’s baptism.
Islam is convinced that it is at baptism that its sons and daughters have become separated from their former way of life. Islam identifies baptism as the time when the believer has died to the old way and embraced a new worldview. Though the image might be uncomfortable, it might even be suggested that baptism, given the worldview of Islam, is to a new believer in Christ what strapping on a belt of explosives is to a suicide bomber. For Islam, baptism is the point of no return. Though western Christians might be repelled by such an image, it seems that Islam (perhaps more than the western church itself) has truly grasped the weight and significance of baptism!” (nikripken.com)

That’s strong, isn’t it? It’s ironic that the Muslims almost put more emphasis on baptism than many Christians do. Baptism is the symbol of absolute commitment; it is “the point of no return.” If that’s so, then what does YOUR obedience to baptism say about YOUR commitment to the Lord? Have you really believed on Jesus in your heart? Have you passed “the point of no return” and really committed yourself to Him? If you’re really a Christian, baptism is not supposed to be an “option.” Verse 48 says Peter “ordered them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”! If you really believe in Jesus, then your first next step, just like for Cornelius, is to be baptized.


There’s a lot we can learn from Cornelius in Acts 10. What does God want YOU to learn from him today — and what specifically do you need to do about it? Let’s bow our heads together …


— Some of us today need to learn from Cornelius that you need Jesus. You’ve thought you’re a “pretty good person,” but just like Cornelius, that’s not enough. Cornelius still needed Jesus to be saved, and so do you … Call on Him right now; admit your sins; and ask Him to save YOU. If you will, as we just saw with Cornelius, you will be saved this moment!

— Or maybe you have a friend or loved one, and maybe even subconsciously you’ve been thinking, “they’re pretty good; God will let them into heaven.” But this shows us that they aren’t good enough. You need to share Jesus with them. Many of us today need to spend this invitation time praying for people we love to be saved.

— Or maybe you’ve been prejudiced against some one, or some group, and God’s convicted you about that. There are some of those people — whoever they are — who are your brothers & sisters in Christ, and they will be with you in heaven, and you need to ask God’s forgiveness, and ask Him to change your heart towards them today.

— And if you’ve asked Jesus to be your Lord & Savior, then you need to obey Jesus’ command and be baptized. Baptism is not “just” a symbol; it’s an important symbol that shows you are really committed to Him. So if you’ve given your life to Jesus as your Savior, today or at some previous time, come tell me, and we’ll set up a time for you to be baptized.

However you need to respond to the lessons from Cornelius, do it right now …

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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