Acts 10: Peter and Cornelius, Peter’s Vision, Gentiles Hear the Good News, The Holy Spirit Falls on the Gentiles
This passage introduces us to Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, which means that he was in command of 100 men. The ESV Study Bible tells me that centurions made something like 5x what a normal Roman soldier would make, so he would have been socially prominent and wealthy, but in his case he’s using his wealth well: he was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (verse 2).
One afternoon an angel of the Lord appears to Cornelius, calling his name, and he—a commander of a hundred men, clearly very brave and accomplished as a soldier in Rome’s powerful army—is terrified. (Nothing against Cornelius, everyone is afraid when confronted by an angel in the Scriptures!) He asks the angel what he wants, and is probably surprised and humbled by the angel’s response in verses 4–6: “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
As a side note, I recognize that this is far from a convincing argument, but if the Acts were made up (as opposed to the record of true events), I doubt that the author would have decided to send Cornelius’ men to find a guy named Peter who’s staying with a guy named Peter. I definitely wouldn’t write a story like that! It’s the kind of thing that happens in real life all the time—lots of people have the same names—but you don’t include it in a story unless there’s a very specific reason to do so. In this case, it’s not important to the narrative that Peter was staying with Peter; it just happens to be that those were the men’s names.
Anyway, Cornelius does what the angel suggested, sending a couple of servants along with a devout soldier to find Peter in Joppa. The passage is specific about that—two servants and a devout soldier—but I’m not sure if or how it’s important.
It’s always good for us in the 21st Century to remember that people in the 1st Century didn’t have cars, trains, or any form of fast transportation. I don’t know my history well, but it’s possible they don’t have even have horses or camels; they might just be walking. So, given that Cornelius is in Caesarea, which is 50km from Joppa, it will take the men a day to get there.
Just before they arrive the next day, however, Peter gets hungry, and while people are preparing some food for him he falls into a trance:
[He] saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (verses 11–16)
For Peter, this is not the clearest vision. It perplexes him, and he spends some time trying to figure out what the vision might mean. While he’s thinking about it Cornelius’ messengers arrive and ask for him, and then, before Peter is even informed of their arrival, the Spirit tells him that there are three men there looking for him, and that Peter should go with them, because He (the Spirit) has sent the men.
So Peter goes down to the door to greet them and asks what they want, to which they reply, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say” (verse 22). Peter invites them in to stay the night, and then they set out the next day to head back to Cornelius: the three men, Peter, and some other believers. (Again, it’s a long trip, and not one that people would have wanted to take at night.)
Peter then has confirmed for him the meaning of his previous vision:
And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”
And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
Peter now understands his previous vision:
So Peter opened his mouth1 and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (verses 34–43)
While Peter is still speaking the Holy Spirit descends on his Gentile listeners who start speaking in tongues and extolling God. It says that the believers who’d accompanied Peter are amazed by this; I assume that Peter himself is not amazed because he’s already been prepared in advance for this: “What God has made clean, do not call common.”
He has the new believers baptised and remains with them for a few days; I presume he spent some of that time preaching, but he probably also spent some of that time just enjoying the presence of new believers, and reveling in the fact that God was now saving Gentiles!
This passage is a turning point in the life of the early Church; one that was shocking to the people of the time—we’ll see it coming up for further discussion in the next passage—and yet almost meaningless to the modern reader. It was a dramatic display of the fact that Christianity is for everyone, not just for a certain ethnic or cultural group; after 2,000 years of Christian history we’re well aware of that and it doesn’t grab us anymore, but at this point (at maybe five years of Church history, give or take?), the early Jewish Christians were having their entire world rocked!
Some were uncomfortable or even antagonistic about it (again, see the next passage), while others were full of joy at the idea of God’s mercy being extended to all. I’m guessing that most were probably in the same situation as Peter: yes, he rejoiced that God saves everyone, not just Jews, but he also fell into his old ways; see Galatians 2:11–14 for example, where we see that Paul had to confront Peter because Peter fell into peer pressure and stopped eating with Gentiles. Peter was clearly wrong, but not in a way that I can feel morally superior to him; we think of old habits being hard to break, but the concept of some food being clean and some being unclean, or that God had a certain set of chosen people (which, by definition, means that everyone else is not chosen), was more than “habit,” it was a core part of what it meant to be Jewish—it was a core part of Peter’s identity!
Peter—as all of us—got a new identity under Christ, but that doesn’t mean the old identity simply faded away. If we get too tempted to judge Peter for not feeling comfortable eating with Gentiles, or to judge the other Jewish Christians we’ll read about in the next passage who don’t feel they should be talking to Gentiles at all, we should think about our own besetting sins. How often does my old nature come up and make me want to do things I shouldn’t, even though I’m now a Christian and I know better?
Does this have relevance to the modern reader? Well it’s definitely relevant to modern readers in the West, because something similar is happening again! Christianity started out in the 1st Century in Palestine, made its way to Europe, and for hundreds of years has been centred in the West (now including North America). It’s not a European religion, and there have been millions of Christians all around the world, but it’s been seen (rightly or wrongly) as one that’s sort of based out of the West, with more Christians in the West than elsewhere. But now that’s changing again, with the numbers of Christians shrinking in the West but growing rapidly in other areas of the world. Western Christians will need to avoid falling into a similar mindset as that of the early Jewish Christians, thinking, “But this is our religion! All those other people aren’t doing it right!” In my opinion, the early Jewish Christians had a slightly more valid concern, because their entire understanding of their religion was changing under them, while Western Christians are just dealing with cultural differences, but it probably won’t stop us from being ungracious about it anyway. We’ve had a long history of treating our culture as if it’s part of the religion, so when other cultures “do church” differently from how we do it, we have a hard time getting our heads around it.
Come to think of it, the West has blended culture into Christianity in similar ways to how Pharisees blended their own rules and regulations into the Law…
The Unclean Food
I have a feeling this is a part of Acts that modern readers don’t fully “get,” yet would have been a huge deal for the members of the early Church, most of whom were Jewish. The Mosaic Law2 had very clear rules about what the Israelites could and could not eat and refraining from eating forbidden—or “unclean”—foods set them apart from their neighbours. The laws were very clear that eating unclean foods made them unclean before God. As I’ve been blogging through Acts I’ve mentioned a few times that the early Jewish Christians likely had to struggle with a lot of things—what’s changed from the Laws of Moses and what hasn’t?—and this is probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest issue they’d have had to address. (Maybe circumcision would be equally vexing to the early Jewish Christians; we’ll see Acts dealing with that later, if I recall correctly.)
When Jesus was alive he said that all foods were now clean (e.g. Mark 7:18–19), but I don’t think the disciples properly understood what he meant; after 2,000 years of Christian history we can read Jesus’ words and they make perfect sense to us; we get to Acts and might wonder what all the fuss is about. To these people, however, it was far from clear cut: they were still figuring all of this out.
For comparison, imagine that Jesus came back again and told us that from now on adultery is fine. It’s no longer a sin; commit adultery as much as you want. We wouldn’t hear those words and immediately toss aside everything we’ve ever known about marriage. “Oh, adultery is fine now? OK!” We wouldn’t accept it that simply. “Surely when He said adultery is fine He didn’t mean it! Or… maybe He meant only under certain circumstances? Or did He mean…” Frankly, if anyone did immediately start believing adultery is ok it would be an indicator that that person already wanted to commit the sin in the first place, not that they were obeying the Lord!
Now, adultery is a bad example. Marriage is much more fundamental to our relationship with God; it’s deeper than the ceremonial laws, into which clean and unclean foods fell. But the fact is, there isn’t a proper example I can give, because there aren’t any “arbitrary” laws that Christians follow, where Christ could come back and say, “You know what, never mind. I’m fine if you [commit adultery | steal | lie | are greedy with your money | lord your power over others | other examples]” It’s not going to happen because it can’t happen. My only point is that if we imagine what it would be like for Jesus to come back and “retract” a rule like that, we can start to understand how the early Jewish Christians felt about there no longer being “unclean” foods, or about circumcision no longer being required, or about the fact that God’s “chosen people” were now much more broadly defined than had previously been the case.
With a lot of time, searching the Scriptures, and people like Paul and others to articulate the new truths of the Gospel, they would come to understand the difference between obedience to Old Testament Mosaic Laws and New Testament Christian living, but it took them a while to get there. This passage isn’t an example of Peter being stubborn, or thick in the head, it’s an example of him working through a complex issue.
I don’t know if it’s important, but there are a couple of instances where things are happening at the same time:
- Peter is having his vision while the messengers are still on their way
- The Spirit is telling Peter to go with the messengers while the messengers are telling the person at the door what they want
Is that just a way of telling the story in a more interesting way? Is there a deeper meaning or cultural significance or something? I don’t know.
I don’t know why the passage specifically says, “Peter opened his mouth and said, …” Is that a figure of speech? Just a weird quirk of Greek that was normal to them (but oddly specific when translated into modern English?) Something that’s actually meaningful, for cultural or other reasons? It’s probably not important… ↩︎
That is, the Old Testament Laws handed down by God to Moses. ↩︎