In the previous pericope, we saw where God worked providentially to connect Cornelius, a Roman Centurion living in Caesarea, with Peter, who was living in Joppa (30 miles south). Cornelius is described as a God-fearer (Acts 10:2, 22). God-fearers were Gentiles who were drawn to the simplicity of monotheism and the high morality offered through the Mosaic Law in Judaism. The Greeks and Romans were polytheistic and their fickle and violent gods were often at war with each other. Their gods were little more than amplified representations of humanity, and the multiplicity of gods made their whole religious system unstable. As a God-fearer, Cornelius showed signs of positive volition, and he sought the Lord in prayer and through acts of kindness. Prayer and acts of charity in an unbeliever have no saving value; however, in the case of Cornelius, they demonstrated positive volition toward God, so the Lord sent him gospel information so he could believe in Christ for salvation (Acts 10:24-44). Cornelius was not saved, but he would be, after hearing and responding to the gospel of grace (Acts 11:13-14). What follows is the account of God’s providence to orchestrate an evangelistic opportunity.
Luke tells us, “On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray” (Acts 10:9). We observe these events occurring in time and space as Luke employs the words day and hour, city and housetop. Cornelius’ servants had traveled the 30 miles south from Caesarea to Joppa in a day, which either meant they were on horseback, or travelled all night. The sixth hour was about noontime and may have reflected a pattern in Peter’s prayer life. Other godly believers had a habit of prayer at certain times of the day (Psa 55:17; Dan 6:10). The Lord would use this situation to teach Peter a theological truth.
- But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance, 11 and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (Acts 10:10-14)
In the vision, Peter saw the sky open up and saw what appeared to him something like a great sheet descending to the ground. On the sheet was a variety of animals, crawling creatures and birds. Peter heard the Lord’s voice instruct him, saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” (Acts 10:12b). The Lord’s directive was a command with two verbs in the imperative mood (θῦσον καὶ φάγε). The Mosaic Law distinguished between clean and unclean animals, and if one touched or ate an unclean animal, one became ceremonially unclean (see Lev 11). The primary reason for the vision was to teach Peter that he was now to accept the Gentiles as equal in the body of Christ, and that he “should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28). In the Church Age, God has declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19; Rom 14:14; Col 2:16; 1 Tim 4:4). But old habits die hard, and Peter was challenged to conform to the new standard, and this was not the first time Peter resisted the Lord (Matt 16:22). Ultimately, God was teaching Peter that He has declared Gentiles and Jews equal in the body of Christ, and that the wall of division had been removed (see Acts 10:28; cf., Gal 3:26-29; Eph 2:14-16). God used repetition for emphasis as well as to seat the matter in Peter’s mind.
And God was gracious and persistent, as Luke tells us, “Again a voice came to him a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky” (Acts 10:15-16). The timing of the vision was intended to prepare Peter for what followed. Luke tells us, “Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate, and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there” (Acts 10:17-18). Here we see God’s providence at work, as He prepares Peter and Cornelius’ servants to meet for the first time. But Peter did not know Cornelius’ men were at the gate, so “While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are looking for you. But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself’” (Acts 10:19-20). This shows that God the Holy Spirit is behind evangelism.
Peter, being positive to the Lord and His directives, obeyed and did as He was told. Luke records, “Peter went down to the men and said, ‘Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?’ They said, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well-spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you” (Acts 10:21-22). The result was, “So he invited them in and gave them lodging. And on the next day he got up and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him” (Acts 10:23). Peter displayed hospitality to his guests by inviting them in and giving them a place to sleep for the night. This was a big change for Peter, for Jews normally did not entertain Gentiles, let alone lodge them in their home for the night. They left the next morning and journeyed from Joppa to Caesarea, and some of Peter’s Jewish brethren came along with him. One wonders why God did not use Philip to preach to Cornelius and family, since Philip was already in Caesarea (Acts 8:40). Whatever the reason, God always works through the right servant at the right time, and Peter was His selection for evangelism.
Summary of Acts 10:9-23:
The Central Idea of the Text is that God revealed to Peter that Gentiles and Jews are both equally acceptable to Him in Christ.
- God is the One who works to create evangelistic opportunities as He works behind the scenes, creating and controlling circumstances for His purposes. Here we observe an example where an angel was used as a “ministering spirit, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Heb 1:14). Though God used an angel to tell Cornelius what to do, the sharing of the gospel is a privilege for humans, and Peter was the Lord’s man to share that salvific information.
- By God’s sovereign will He controls all the events of our lives, and the things we consider mundane or coincidence are used by Him to direct us to the places and people He has predetermined. In this, we know there are no accidental events in our lives, nor chance encounters with other people, for God is working “all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11; cf. Psa 103:19; 135:6; Dan 4:35), and causing “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).
- God used a visual aid and repetition as pedagogical tools to help Peter uproot a lifetime of thinking that was now a hindrance to his spiritual service. The Lord was changing His historical program through the institution of the Church, and the separation that existed historically between Jews and Gentiles was removed (Gal 3:26-29; Eph 2:11-16; Col 3:11). Peter, having originally said to God, “By no means, Lord” (Acts 10:14; cf. Matt 16:21-23; John 13:8), soon revealed himself as teachable and willing to adjust his theology and life as God corrected him. Theology must have application, and the correction to Peter’s theology became evident when he actually went with the Gentiles to the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:23-48).
- It’s tough to make personal changes in ministry because we’re challenged to unseat longstanding values and traditions which may have served us well at one time, but are no longer useful. Inertia is easier and requires no action to change. However, if we’re unwilling to change, the end result is death to ministry. In Peter’s case, inertia would have rendered him useless as a servant of the Lord, and may have brought divine discipline.
If you are here this morning without Christ, without hope, and without eternal life, I want you to know that when Jesus was on the cross, He had you personally in mind as He bore your sin and paid the price for it. He died and paid the penalty for your sins so that you would not have to. Scripture reveals, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), and “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). The good news for us is that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4), and if we place our faith in Him as the only Savior (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), we are promised forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7), eternal life (John 10:28), and place in heaven forever (John 14:1-3). I “beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).