No Longer Dogs

Acts 11:1-18      |     Sermon Resources    |      3 May 2020


Gentile Dogs

In one of the most misunderstood passages in the gospels, in Matthew 15, a Gentile woman, a Canaanite, comes and kneels before Jesus asking him to help her demon-possessed daughter. In response Jesus says,

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew 15:26

This reflected the Jewish attitude toward non-Jews. Dogs were a dirty animals. And non-Jews, or Gentiles, were also considered unclean. Jesus is testing his disciples as well as the woman to see what they will do. In John 10:16, Jesus reveals that his plan of salvation does in fact include the Gentiles. Here he no longer calls them dogs, but sheep. “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

It’s interesting that chapter 11 opens with a report saying that “the Gentiles” also had received the word of God. It doesn’t say that an army commander, a Roman centurion and his family, received the Word of God. What makes the headlines in the region of Judea is the shocking news that Gentiles were hearing about Jesus’ resurrection. And for those who were used to thinking about Gentiles as dogs, this was truly astonishing. It doesn’t go without criticism. We hear that the “circumcision party” is offended. Circumcision and diet were what separated Jews from Gentiles by all outward appearances, and why Gentiles, like dogs, were considered unclean. The circumcision party were Jews who believed in Jesus, but who assumed people had to be circumcised and abide by the food restrictions of the Mosaic law. Up to this point the gospel had crossed over to the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25) – those “half-breeds” who were not fully Jewish, and to proselytes (Acts 2:11). Proselytes were Gentile converts to Judaism who had been circumcised and who kept the Mosaic law. But this is the first time a full-blown Gentile household believed. The circumcision party became a very powerful block among the early Christians. Apparently, Jesus’ brother James was “in” with them. And we learn in Galatians 2:12 that Peter himself was later led astray by them and that Paul had to confront Peter over this. “For before certain men came from James, he [Peter] was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” I think it is very hard for us to imagine what this barrier was like. Imagine hearing that one of our Cornerstone elders had gone into a doghouse, eaten dog food, and tried to share the glories of the gospel with a pit bull! This is exaggerated, of course, but I think we begin to get an idea of how offensive it was to hear that a Jewish apostle had eaten with uncircumcised men. The bottom line is this: in Peter’s decision to eat with the Gentiles, he was acknowledging them to be clean and worthy of fellowship. They were no longer dogs.

No Distinctions

We need to begin to apply this in our own lives. You and I are not likely to have a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven, but very likely something you find disgusting may come right up to you. It may be that God will call you into an uncomfortable situation. You need to be able to discern whether it is something God has called clean. In other words, God may take you and me out of our comfort zones and put us in a circumstance in which we need to share the gospel with someone who looks or sounds very different than us. What must we do? The main thrust of the heavenly command comes in verse 12:

“…the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.” Acts 11:12

Making no distinction is the key. It is so significant that Peter later repeats the phrase verbatim at the first ecumenical church council (Acts 15:8-9). Peter had to go without misgivings, without hesitation, and without criticism. It is actually the same Greek verb used in v. 2 in regard to the circumcision party’s attitude towards Peter where it is translated “criticized.” Here, Peter was told by the Spirit not to criticize. It is easy to criticize others, to make distinctions, to stay in my own comfortable cliques. Are you failing to take the Word of God to others because you are making distinctions? Does your criticism of certain groups lead you to disobey the Spirit? Paul was very careful to say that church leaders must at times judge those within the church (1 Cor. 5:12), but never outsiders, not the unchurched. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders?” In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). On judgment day, God forbid that some people say they never heard the gospel because you and I never shared it with them. If you have neighbors who don’t claim to be Christians, who haven’t experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ, then you must be very careful not to make distinctions, not to assume that they are not interested in the gospel or that they won’t respond to it. If Peter had made distinctions, Cornelius and his household would not have received the good news of forgiveness of sins through Jesus’s name.

God Saves Households

We also need to notice in this passage the way that God works through natural connections of friends and relatives. We get some information here in chapter 11 that was not in chapter 10. Specifically, in v. 14, we read that Cornelius was told that he and all his household would be saved.

“he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” Acts 11:14

What an amazing promise! No wonder Cornelius had invited all his relatives and close friends! Some of you have been surprised that we baptize whole families here at Cornerstone, but it is the biblical pattern. Just as baby boys of Jewish believers were circumcised in the Old Testament (Genesis 17:12), children of believers are baptized in the New Testament. Baptism is a more inclusive sign than circumcision, since circumcision was limited to males. Baptism includes women and girls in addition to men and boys. This is the second of five household baptisms mentioned in the book of Acts, the first being at Pentecost where children are specifically mentioned (Acts 2:38-39). In all five household baptisms recorded in Acts, there is no hint that any children of believers were excluded. In any case, I don’t think anyone will disagree that the example before us suggests that we need to invite all our relatives and close friends to hear the gospel. We can pray that the Spirit comes on ALL who hear the message, just as the Spirit did that day on Cornelius’s whole household (10:44). And as our relatives hear the word of God, we should have no hesitation to have our whole household baptized just like Cornelius, Lydia (16:15), the Philippian jailer (16:33), and Crispus, the Corinthian synagogue ruler (18:8), did.

When you Get Jesus, You Get the Holy Spirit Thrown In

There is another somewhat controversial topic that is addressed in this passage, the idea of a second blessing of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit came on the Samaritans in chapter 8, it was at a different time than when they first believed. Some have used this to argue for a second blessing of the Holy Spirit that happens at a later time than when one believes. Pastor Billy has already addressed the fact that this was necessary in that case in order to prevent the church being permanently divided between Israelite and Samaritan. Notice in this case that the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles at the same time that they received the gospel. But notice also in verse 17 that in Peter’s explanation of Pentecost, he likewise records the time that the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles as being at the same time as they believed. Peter says that God gave them the Holy Spirit when they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

“…God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.Acts 11:17

After they believed, like Thomas, that Jesus was God (John 20:28), that he was alive forevermore and would return to be the Judge of the whole earth, they received the Holy Spirit. Technically, there were some days or weeks between Thomas’s confession and Pentecost, but Peter compresses these events and theologically joins them together. The point is that you get the Holy Spirit when you receive Jesus. It is unwise and even dangerous to pit the Holy Spirit against Jesus when they are two persons of the same Trinity. The Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7; Philippians 1:19) and Jesus himself said that the Holy Spirit would glorify him (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit is always going to point you to Jesus. Any spirit that is not glorifying Jesus is a false spirit.

All you must do to receive the Holy Spirit is to believe in Jesus, that he is the Lord, the eternal God of the universe to whom all praise and glory is due, and that He is the Christ, that is, the anointed Israelite prophet, priest, and king to whom all service and loyalty is due. When you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you too will receive the Holy Spirit. Who is the Holy Spirit? He is the Helper or Advocate, who teaches us all things, who sets our minds on life and peace, who helps us submit to God’s moral law as something delightful, who helps us put to death the misdeeds of the body, who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, who helps us in our weakness, and who is interceding for us with groanings too deep for words (John 14:26; Romans 8:1-26). When you get Jesus, you get the Father and the Spirit thrown in too (Galatians 4:6): one God, eternally existing in three persons, equal in power and glory.

Tongues had Special Significance

Related to this, you don’t have to speak in tongues in order to know you have received the Holy Spirit. Some churches teach that the gift of the Holy Spirit must be accompanied by speaking in tongues. First of all, there is no hint in the book of Acts that tongues were some kind of angelic language unknown to humans. The miracle at Pentecost was that the apostles could speak in Persian, Arabic, and other languages without having studied them (Acts 2:9-11). Scripture makes it very clear that what Cornelius and his household were saying in tongues was understood, because it says they were “extolling God” (Acts 10:46). But even if we understand tongues correctly as speaking a known language that was not learned from childhood or studied, we need to ask whether this gift was the norm or whether it was a unique sign with some special significance. Without even trying to address when tongues cease (1 Corinthians 13:8; need another sermon for that), by looking at the three or possibly four times tongues were exhibited in the book of Acts, we can observe that all of the instances happened when the gospel was breaking some kind of ethnic or cultural barrier:

  1. At Pentecost, when the gospel was being proclaimed to “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5 NIV),
  2. possibly when the Holy Spirit came upon the Samaritans in chapter 8 (it doesn’t specifically mention tongues in that case, but because the way the Spirit was manifested proved impressive to Simon the Magician, it suggests some outward sign),
  3. here when the gospel came to non-Jews, and
  4. finally, in Acts 19:6, when the gospel crossed a barrier into Asia Minor, the multilingual city of Ephesus. F.F. Bruce has pointed out that Ephesus was to become the second most important center for the Gentile mission.[1]

So, in the book of Acts, it certainly was not normal for tongues to occur every time the gospel was shared. As Pastor Billy has mentioned on several occasions, there was certainly something unique about the apostles and that time period, and one of the reasons why God used the Jewish apostles during these cross-cultural miraculous outpourings of the Holy Spirit was so that there would be one church – united across the Jewish-Gentile barrier, across the language barriers, and across geographical barriers.

Do Not Stand in God’s Way

And this leads us to our final point. Peter concludes his remarks to the circumcision party with a question:

“If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” Acts 11:17

Sadly, many churches have united around language, around ethnicity, or around nationalistic causes rather than around the resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins he offers us by his death on the tree. What should still amaze us is that there is no language, no ethnicity, no “disgusting animal”-eating people, and no nation that will be excluded by Jesus and his kingdom. As the apostle John saw in his glorious revelation on the island of Patmos, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10). Are we willing to take the gospel across barriers such as race, language, and class? Do you and I believe that the Holy Spirit of Jesus was intended to be poured out upon those who sound and look different than us? We should be amazed first of all that the gospel came to us – many of us bacon-loving Gentiles. We are no longer dogs, but sheep.

How should you and I respond when God gives his salvation to those who look and sound different than us? We see two appropriate responses in verse 18. First, we should be silent. We should stop criticizing people who have different diets, who wear different clothing or jewelry, who have hairstyles that shock us, who drive vehicles that we don’t like, who root for the wrong football team, or who vote for politicians that we can’t stand. Do you believe that the Holy Spirit might possibly fall on these people? If you hear that they have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then fall silent. Secondly, notice that the former critics now glorified God. Don’t be like the second son in the parable who wouldn’t join the party for his prodigal brother that returned. Glorify God that He delights to rescue the lost and cleanse the defiled, that He turns dogs into sheep so there will be one flock led by one Good Shepherd. Before you and I believed, every one of us was defiled. The issue at hand is Jesus’s mission to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Do not stand in His way.


[1] As cited in

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the dirtiest animal you can think of? How does this help to understand how large the barrier was between Jew and Gentile?
  2. Is it surprising that Peter stopped eating with Gentiles and separated himself again (Galatians 2:11-12) after such a powerful lesson? What warning can we take from this?
  3. What groups are you prone to criticize? How does the Spirit’s command to make no distinction challenge you personally?
  4. How can you encourage your family and friends to hear the gospel? Do you believe that children can be baptized? Why or why not?
  5. What is your view of the Holy Spirit? How does this align with Scripture passages such as John 16:7-15 and Romans 8:1-26?
  6. Do you agree that tongues had a special significance in the early church?
  7. How might you be standing in the way of God’s mission to seek and save the lost?
  8. What will you do as a result of this message?

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