When Cornelius had finished his recital, Peter, at some length, expressed the conviction, which he had been so slow to realize, and which it had needed a special communication from heaven to impress upon him, that the Gentiles were not any longer to be regarded as unclean, and that the offer of the Gospel was open to them, as well as to the Jews. He then proceeded to explain what that Gospel was, showing that all things that were written in the books of the prophets were accomplished in Jesus—of whom Cornelius and his friends had doubtless heard, for the Gospel had already been preached by Philip in Caesarea—“who went about doing good,” who died a shameful death upon “the tree” for man’s redemption, who rose again from the dead, and who should hereafter judge the world He had died to save, and that now peace was preached, now remission of sins was offered to such as believed in his name.
While Peter was yet speaking, the Holy Ghost fell upon Cornelius and his friends, and the same miraculous manifestations of this fact followed as had been witnessed on the great day of Pentecost. Indeed, Peter himself, on a subsequent occasion, in describing this event to the apostles at Jerusalem compared these two manifestations—declaring that the Holy Ghost had descended on this occasion “as upon us at the beginning.” It has hence not unreasonably been conceived, that there may in this case have been even some appearance of light or flame, as in the former instance. And, indeed, the greatness of the occasion—being the first practical opening of the church to the Gentiles—might both require and explain such a manifestation. It is clear, at all events, that nothing like this had occurred since the great Pentecostal effusion of the Spirit. Many had, since then, received the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, but none in this manner. Such gifts had been bestowed after baptism, and upon the imposition of the apostles’ hands. But here it was direct, and signal, and even before baptism; as distinct and plenary as on the day of Pentecost.
What course Peter himself may have taken, had not this sign been given, it may be hard to say. We should suppose, from the tenor of his discourse, that he would have admitted them to baptism, on their declaring their belief in the Lord Jesus; and it is only his subsequent conduct at Antioch, in reference to the general question, that leaves the matter open to any doubt. Our own impression is, that he would have admitted these Gentiles to the Christian church; but that he would have been eventually led to regard the case as exceptional, and as affording no precedent without such special previous warrant as he had in this instance received. But although Peter himself may have been prepared to receive these Gentiles into the bosom of the church, it is doubtful that the “brethren” who had accompanied Peter from Joppa would, and it was nearly certain that others at a distance would not have recognized the rightness of this step, unless this extraordinary sign had been previously given. We may, therefore, conclude that it was given for the purpose of rendering the will of God indisputably manifest, and of showing that the course which Peter took was not only in accordance with it, but was absolutely required by it. It was calculated to prevent the brethren then present from offering any such opposition as might have cast a damp and a doubt over the proceeding and it was suited to stop the mouths of any who might afterwards call it in question.
Accordingly, no sooner did Peter witness this, and hear these Gentiles “speak with tongues and magnify God,” than he exclaimed, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the holy Ghost as well as we?” words, the very cast of which suggest that he was far from certain that the Jewish prejudices of the brethren might not yet be opposed to this step, or, at least, that they could only have been overcome by such a manifestation of the Divine purpose as this. But there was not, and could not be, any answer to such an argument. It was not for man to withhold the baptism of water, where God had given the baptism of the Spirit. Peter therefore “commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.” By this it appears that he did not himself baptize them. Indeed, it seems that the apostles very rarely did baptize with their own hands. Note: 1Co_1:14. This office was, on the present occasion, doubtless discharged by the brethren present with him; and he might prefer to use their ministry, that by this means the expression of their concurrence might be rendered the more explicit.
To express their gratitude to Peter for the great benefits he had been the instrument of imparting to them, as well as that they might be further instructed in the way of life, Cornelius and his friends implored him “to tarry with them certain days.” It is not directly stated that he consented, but it appears from the sequel that he did, and was doubtless involved in the charge afterwards made against him, of “going in to men uncircumcised, and eating with them.” The latter clause must refer to this subsequent intercourse, for Peter did not previously eat with them. By this he showed that, at least under certain circumstances, he considered himself loosed from the obligation of ritual precepts. It does not seem, however, that though living with Gentiles during this time, he partook of forbidden meats, for of this there is not a word in the charge afterwards made against him, in reference to these transactions; nor does it, indeed, appear that any converted Jews did so till after their final dispersion.
When the tidings reached Jerusalem that the Gentiles had received the word of God, the feeling excited there was not generally one of thankfulness and gratitude. Feeling on this point doubtless varied among different individuals; but there were certainly many who would not bring themselves to think with any complacency that the Gospel was not the exclusive privilege of the Jews, or that it could be reached but through Judaism. By these Peter was warmly censured for his conduct, when, shortly after, he returned to Jerusalem. Then, in his own vindication, the apostle “rehearsed the whole matter from the beginning, and expounded it in order unto them.” At the close of his plain recital of the circumstance, he merely added this cogent and unanswerable remark—“Forasmuch then, as God gave them the like gift as He did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, what was I that I could withstand God?” To the credit of the brethren at Jerusalem, they, on hearing this, not only “held their peace,” but “glorified God,” for the extension of his mercies to the Gentiles. They doubted so long as it had seemed that Peter had acted on his own judgment and discretion; but when he had made it plainly appear that the will of God had been clearly manifested, then they abandoned their ground of opposition, and cheerfully acquiesced in the conclusion that “then hath God also granted unto the Gentiles repentance unto life.”