© 2000, J.W. Carter
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Chapter ten is a key chapter in the book of Acts. This book has recorded the formation of the early church from Jesus commission to the apostles to spread the Gospel under the power of the Holy Spirit, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the subsequent spread of Christianity through the Jewish communities. Pentecost brought many people into Jerusalem for the feast, and many of these stayed in Jerusalem for a period while the church grew. As persecution from the religious leaders escalated under the hands of Saul of Tarsus, these visitors returned to their homes, spreading the gospel to the entire region.
During this time, the disciples and apostles experienced tremendous growth in the church, witnessed many signs and wonders, miracles including healings, and even the raising of Dorcas from death (9:36-42.). One characteristic of the early church must be mentioned at this point, however: It was a strictly Jewish community. The concept of taking the good news outside of the body of the children of Abraham had not been considered. Why would this be true? Though the Mosaic law did not forbid the children of Abraham from interacting with non-Jews, their traditional law did. The laws in this area only referred to intermarriage. Jews were not to marry Gentiles, and the consequences of intermarriage are illustrated numerous times in the Old Testament.
However, the traditional law developed a deep prejudice in the people against non-Jews. Even today, many Jews adhere to the practice of avoiding social interaction with non-Jews. What is the consequence of such prejudice? Israel was called by God to be a nation of priests, declaring the goodness of God to the world. By avoiding social interaction, the Jews were not obedient to this first calling, and failed to declare God to others, keeping the knowledge of Him to themselves, and setting themselves as "better" than everyone else.
Chapter ten in the book of Acts, illustrates a turning point in the basic view of Christianity as seen by the church. Up to that time the church considered Christianity to be a fulfillment of Judaism, (which it is), and consequently is limited to Jews (which it is not.) They felt that in order for a Gentile, or non-Jew to come to Christ, they first had to become Jewish. Otherwise, they were still ceremonially unclean because they did not adhere to Jewish customs and laws.
The prejudice in this area was so deep that the church did not take the good news outside of Judaism. In what ways is the Christian church of today experiencing a similar prejudice? One does not have to look far to see a lack of diversity in our churches. Our church groups have divided into denominations where each claims to have a special, and correct, view of theology. Within these denominations are congregations that are divided by social appearance, including economic strata, race, and cultural or national background. We have churches of all white members, churches of all black members, etc. Furthermore, the process of evangelism resides predominantly within those factioned denominations. While we contentedly sit in the protection of our social and cultural church family walls, there is a world out there that is not hearing the Gospel, and the gospel they see is hidden behind walls of prejudice. Not that much has changed in 2000 years.
Chapter ten in the book of Acts gives us some insight into Gods purpose in spreading the gospel, and His will concerning the prejudices held by the faithful.
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, 2A devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway. 3He saw in a vision evidently about the ninth hour of the day an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius. 4And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. 5And now send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter: 6He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do. 7And when the angel which spake unto Cornelius was departed, he called two of his household servants, and a devout soldier of them that waited on him continually; 8And when he had declared all these things unto them, he sent them to Joppa.
In verse 1 we meet a man named Cornelius. Who is he? First, he was a Centurion, a leader of a company of Roman soldiers. What was the opinion of the Jews concerning such a man? As a non-Jew he was unclean. As a Roman, he was an enemy, and as a Centurion he was the most hated. What kind of reputation did Roman soldiers have? Were they all God-fearing and generous? Certainly, they were consumers of the worlds sinful commodities, and a Centurion as known to be the most boistrous and lasivious of them all, as they maintained respect through their power and self-confidence. If you were a Jew talking of a Centurion, an image would immediately come to mind of an unclean enemy of God, one who is not only unredeemable, but one who is to be avoided at all costs.
How would you describe this particular Centurion? He was not only a God-fearing man, he raised his family with the same love of God. He was a man of prayer, and was generous in giving to those in need. Does this sound like the stereotypical Centurion? Of course not. Herein we see the error of stereotype. Any time we characterize a person by a label, we are doing so in ignorance. We have no knowledge of the true nature of the person, replacing any desire to obtain such knowledge with one that is based on false presuppositions. As a result, we do not know the person who is the object of such prejudice and have no interest in changing that state. This is where the Jews were concerning gentiles. This is where Christians are in their relationship (or lack thereof) of both non-Christians, and even Christians of different denominations or social standing in the world either through race or economic state
It is interesting that Cornelius received a vision from God at about three in the afternoon. What is significant about 9:00AM, 12:00 Noon, and 3:00 PM? These were traditional times of prayer. What did Cornelius see in this vision? A messenger from God came to him with a very short and specific message: Send men to Joppa to get Peter. There is no indication of reason, other than it has something to do with his demonstrated faithfulness to God. Apparently, the Centurion led his soldiers with their full understanding of his faithfulness to God, and though they would obey him regardless of his beliefs, at least one of his attendants was also a godly man.
On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour:
Peter was near Joppa, and staying at the home of Simon the Tanner. It was common to go to the roof to pray since it would be quiet, and one could feel closer to Jerusalem as it was faced during prayers.
Acts 10:10-16. (KJV) And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, 11And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: 12Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. 13And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. 14But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. 15And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. 16This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.
Just as Cornelius had been given a vision on the previous day, Peter was now being given a complement vision that comes just before the arrival of Cornelius men. Peter was invited by God in this vision to eat animals that were ceremonially unclean. What was Peters response? It was much like the Peter we knew before Pentecost. It is refreshing to know that even Peter had to always deal with the old, sinful man that God had saved. When we come to God we are not magically cleansed of our sin, we are simply cleansed of the condemnation that it brings. We then, in obedience to God repent of our sin and try to live God-centered lives. We are never free of the natural bent to sin, and neither was Peter. Peter rejected Gods command, much like he rejected Jesus prophesy of the crucifixion. In the vision, God answers Peters objection by stating that what God declares as clean is clean, and Peter must also treat it as such.
What was taking place here? What did this vision have to do about eating? The scripture states that Peter was hungry, so eating was on his mind. No doubt he could smell the preparation of the meal that was taking place below him. Note also that noon was not a typical time to eat. Their meal was in the late afternoon. Peter had full knowledge and understanding that the meal that was being prepared for him was ceremonially correct: it was "kosher." Just like every area of his life, it was maintained in a clean, or kosher, manner. God was preparing Peter for what was about to take place when he came down from the roof. Just like food was divided into two groups, clean and unclean, Peter had divided the population of people into two groups, clean and unclean.
Why was this vision repeated three times? Just as Peter had denied Jesus three times, and Jesus had asked for his love three times, God emphasizes the importance of this vision by repeating it three times. Though Peter does not yet fully comprehend the purpose of this vision, its importance is emphasized, so it will be remembered. Peter would not have to remember it for long.
Now while Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean, behold, the men which were sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simons house, and stood before the gate, 18And called, and asked whether Simon, which was surnamed Peter, were lodged there. 19While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said unto him, Behold, three men seek thee. 20Arise therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them.
Who were the men who were sent to the house of Simon the Tanner? They were Roman soldiers. What kind of experience did Peter have with Roman soldiers? A lot of them were not pleasant. He saw them torture and kill Jesus. They were an enemy of the Jewish people. So, as Peter is wondering about the meaning of the vision, a squad of three Roman soldiers were outside of the gate and asking for Peter. Peter must have been quite alarmed. What, most likely, would Peter assume they were there for? They would be there to arrest him. Actually, that is exactly what they were there for, but the context of the arrest was not what Peter would assume. God still had to help Peter to deal with this decision, and as the vision was fresh in his mind, he felt the Holy Spirit telling him that he is to go with them without hesitation. Even at this point, Peter is clueless concerning the purpose of this arrest. Doubly confusing would be the gracious and kind nature of the soldiers, quite different from the stereotypical anger and violence he would expect.
Then Peter went down to the men which were sent unto him from Cornelius; and said, Behold, I am he whom ye seek: what is the cause wherefore ye are come? 22And they said, Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews, was warned from God by an holy angel to send for thee into his house, and to hear words of thee. 23Then called he them in, and lodged them. And on the morrow Peter went away with them, and certain brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24And the morrow after they entered into Caesarea. And Cornelius waited for them, and had called together his kinsmen and near friends. 25And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him. 26But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.
The meaning of Peters vision came without question. The testimony he heard from the soldiers had to be quite amazing to Peter, particularly in the light of his vision. Here were three Gentiles sharing the testimony of their God-fearing Centurion. How could a Centurion in Caesarea come to know God? This question had to come to Peters mind. However, he had seen the gospel shared with thousands of people since the Pentecost experience and was well-aware of its dispersion following the persecution by Saul. Peter saw these men as unclean, but they were talking with great respect of their Godly centurion. This exactly fit the context of his vision. Just as God had declared the food that Peter had considered unclean to be clean, these men were also declared to be clean because of their faithfulness to Him.
Following this, Peter breaks yet another of the traditional laws, as he had become so accustomed to doing. What did he do? He invited the men to enter the house, not just to talk, but to spend the night. This included eating with them (remember, it was only noon, and he had not yet eaten the meal that was being prepared, and they would not leave for Caesarea until the next day.) This was a very large step for Peter. The prejudices that he had built were like an impenetrable wall between himself and the Gentiles. These walls were suddenly tumbling down, and Peter was showing traditional hospitality to non-Jews, and particularly those non-Jews that were the most stereotyped as vulgar and unclean.
They left the next day, and required the entire day to travel to Caesarea. Cornelius had brought together his family and close friends to meet this famous man of God that he had been told by God himself to send for. This was indeed a defining moment in Cornelius life. In steps Peter. What does Cornelius do? He hits the dirt. When he sees Peter he humbles himself as if he were in the presence of God himself, quite out of character for a Centurion. As a centurion he was to show this respect for only one person: who was that? The Caesar. Peter was probably quite surprised by this show of humility, one that he did not get from the Christian community. However, the Centurions action was one of ignorance, and Peter responded immediately, asking the man to stand before him as an equal.
It would have been very easy for Peter to enjoy the groveling of this Centurion in his own honor, but Peter now understood the truth. The prejudices that he held by ignorance were destroyed by his knowledge of the truth. He indeed saw the Centurion as his equal under God, not as an object to be scorned.
And as he talked with him, he went in, and found many that were come together. 28And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean. 29Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask therefore for what intent ye have sent for me? 30And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, 31And said, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God. 32Send therefore to Joppa, and call hither Simon, whose surname is Peter; he is lodged in the house of one Simon a tanner by the sea side: who, when he cometh, shall speak unto thee. 33Immediately therefore I sent to thee; and thou hast well done that thou art come. Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.
Upon meeting the people, there was a cultural gap to be bridged. When we look at these words we might first think that Peter is sounding a bit pompous or proud, stating that it is not legal for them to be together in this way. However, what Peter is saying is neither pompous or proud. When Peter stepped into their midst he was now the object of the same prejudice that he had been maintaining. As a leader of a Jewish community, he would have been dressed in ceremonial clothing. They would see him as the wrong person in the wrong place. Many would question why Peter was here. They were there because Cornelius had called them there to meet this man. So, Peter starts by breaking down the walls of prejudice.
Peter starts with referring to the law that prohibits his association or visiting of Gentiles. Again, dont waste a lot of time searching for this law in the Old Testament. It is not there. This was one of the thousands of traditional laws the Pharisees had added to Mosaic law. Peter declared that this law was an error. He referred to Gods instruction that they were equal in His sight.
Peter still was not sure of his purpose there, so upon asking, Cornelius told him of the vision, exposing quite clearly that Peter was there to share the gospel with them. Cornelius loved God, but he did not know about Jesus. So, through that vision, Cornelius opens the door for Peter by asking him to reveal all that the Lord had commanded him to tell.
Wouldnt it be nice if we could often share the gospel this way? The seeker sends someone to us, and upon our arrival, asks us to tell them the gospel. This is not a very common occurrence, and in this case, because of the groups prejudices for one another, it required an act of God for both parties.
Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: 35But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. 36The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: (he is Lord of all:) 37That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached; 38How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.
Peter responds with two messages. The first is that God does not show favoritism towards peoples. As people who wish to follow God, this is a very important message. Coming from a respected Jewish leader, this is an astounding testimony. This breach of prejudice lays the foundation for the second message of Peters little sermon, the presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The result of Peters visit, that apparently lasted a few days, was the salvation of Cornelius and his household.
There had certainly been some other occurrences of Gentiles coming to the Lord through the spread of the gospel through the region. However, this conversion had special significance. By Peters leading this family to the Lord, he had crossed over the line between Jews and Gentiles in a way that could carry no apology. It was now official: the gospel is meant for all people, not just for Jews.
The consequences of this truth would create much conflict in the early church. Even Peter was never able to completely resolve his feelings of prejudice. We will see later in the book of acts where Paul will chastise Peter for showing favoritism to the Jewish Christians over the Gentiles. There is no record of any of the apostles becoming effective at reaching the Gentiles, other than Paul himself. Consequently, at this point in the book of Acts, the attention moves away from the activities of the apostles, and moves outside of Jerusalem as Paul takes the gospel to the Gentiles.
There is an additional lesson here that goes far beyond the historical event of the movement of the gospel from the Jewish community to the Gentile community. The basic message here is that God is not prejudiced, and as Christians seek to become more like Christ, it is absolutely essential that we surrender the walls of prejudice that we surround ourselves with. The walls of prejudice stand against everything that we believe as Christians. It stands against the demonstration of Gods love. It stands against the spread of the gospel. It separates people, while the good news of Jesus Christ brings people together.
Let us never forget the devastating effect that prejudice has on our testimony and effectiveness as Christians. Such prejudice will always hold us back from becoming the person that God intended.