Reader: “What could the vision mean?”
Response: “God shows no favoritism.”
Scripture: Acts 10:1-34
In Caesarea there lived a Roman army officer named Cornelius, who was a captain of the Italian Regiment. He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was everyone in his household. He gave generously to the poor and prayed regularly to God. One afternoon about three o’clock, he had a vision in which he saw an angel of God coming toward him. “Cornelius!” the angel said.
Cornelius stared at him in terror. “What is it, sir?” he asked the angel.
And the angel replied, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have been received by God as an offering! Now send some men to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He is staying with Simon, a tanner who lives near the seashore.”
As soon as the angel was gone, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier, one of his personal attendants. He told them what had happened and sent them off to Joppa.
The next day as Cornelius’s messengers were nearing the town, Peter went up on the flat roof to pray. It was about noon, and he was hungry. But while a meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the sky open, and something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners. In the sheet were all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds. Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.”
“No, Lord,” Peter declared. “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean.”
But the voice spoke again: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” The same vision was repeated three times. Then the sheet was suddenly pulled up to heaven.
Peter was very perplexed. What could the vision mean? Just then the men sent by Cornelius found Simon’s house. Standing outside the gate, 18 they asked if a man named Simon Peter was staying there.
Meanwhile, as Peter was puzzling over the vision, the Holy Spirit said to him, “Three men have come looking for you. Get up, go downstairs, and go with them without hesitation. Don’t worry, for I have sent them.”
So Peter went down and said, “I’m the man you are looking for. Why have you come?”
They said, “We were sent by Cornelius, a Roman officer. He is a devout and God-fearing man, well respected by all the Jews. A holy angel instructed him to summon you to his house so that he can hear your message.” So Peter invited the men to stay for the night. The next day he went with them, accompanied by some of the brothers from Joppa.
They arrived in Caesarea the following day. Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered his home, Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter pulled him up and said, “Stand up! I’m a human being just like you!” So they talked together and went inside, where many others were assembled.
Peter told them, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean. So I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. Now tell me why you sent for me.”
Cornelius replied, “Four days ago I was praying in my house about this same time, three o’clock in the afternoon. Suddenly, a man in dazzling clothes was standing in front of me. He told me, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your gifts to the poor have been noticed by God! Now send messengers to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. He is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner who lives near the seashore.’ So I sent for you at once, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here, waiting before God to hear the message the Lord has given you.”
Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism.
Reader: “The word of the Lord.”
Response: “Thanks be to God.”
At first glance this may seem like a simple story of Peter preaching a sermon to a Roman centurion. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a pivotal chapter in the New Testament and in the history of the early Christian church and apart from Pentecost, the most revolutionary chapter in all of Acts. Here’s why. To understand more fully, we have to put ourselves back in Peter’s day with the mindset of the first followers of Christ.
Virtually all the first Christians were Jews. Jesus was a Jewsih rabbi and the twelve disciples were all Jewish. Jesus preached to the Jews primarily. In our passage we begin with Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman centurion, clearly someone who was not a Jew but a Gentile, who was living in Caesarea. In fact everyone in his household was God-fearing. He gave alms to the poor as Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.6:3). You also noticed that he prayed daily at 3 PM in the afternoon, one of the regular hours of prayer for an observant Jew. (Hours of prayer were 9 AM, 12 noon, and 3 PM.)
During his time of prayer, an angel came with a message to call for Peter. Note the details of this whole account. Cornelius acted immediately by calling two of his servants at the conclusion of the vision to go and summon Peter. Located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Caesarea was about thirty miles north of Joppa, where Peter was staying with Simon the tanner. Since it was already late afternoon, the men left right away and stayed overnight somewhere in between is my guess. It was probably a ten hour walk at least. At any rate, they arrived at noon the following day, the hour of prayer, which is what Peter was doing when his vision appeared.
It appears Peter was grappling with the broader scope of the gospel prior to this time. Why say that? Peter was staying at the home of Simon the tanner. Simon had become a believer. But for the orthodox Jew, tanners were unclean since they dealt with dead animals. In fact, their houses had to be located at least 75 ft. outside of the village. And Peter was staying with such an “unclean” man! The vision appeared to Peter three times, an indication of power, significance, and urgency. Peter was wrestling with the meaning of what he had seen in the vision when the messengers from Cornelius arrived. Note the timing of God’s plan. When Peter heard their reason for coming, he had his answer for the meaning of his vision! Another Jewish cultural earthquake happened. Since it was again late in the day for the thirty mile trek north to Caesarea, Peter invited these unclean Roman Gentiles to stay overnight in the same house and even eat together! God was in the process of changing Peter’s and the first Christian’s understanding of the scope of the gospel.
They left the next morning and travelled all day to arrive at Caesarea late afternoon. Cornelius had already assembled family, relatives, and friends all of whom were earnestly seeking to know more about the God to whom they were praying. Never did Peter have a more receptive group of people to hear the gospel. Even while Peter was preaching, the Holy Spirit fell upon all the Roman Gentiles and they began to speak in tongues praising God. The Spirit did not even wait for Peter to finish his message, reminding us again, that the “wind of the Spirit blows when and where it wills.” The six Jews of the circumcision who had come with Peter on this journey, were astonished, astounded, and amazed at what had happened to the Gentiles! This action did not fit with their understanding, yet God was enlarging their vision as well! Cornelius and his whole clan were baptized on the spot in the name of Jesus Christ. From this point on, the gospel began to be preached to all peoples, and not just the Jews.
There are some basic lessons in this account of note. 1) Did you notice how quickly both Cornelius and Peter responded in action after hearing God’s word? When we hear a word from the Lord, most often an opportunity to act comes shortly afterward. When God says something to you, don’t sit on it, do it! 2) Cornelius and his family and friends had “partial light” in terms of loving and responding to God. Principle: when there is a genuine attempt to live in the light one has, more light will be given. “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened unto you.” 3) Cornelius’ earnestness of seeking was attested to by his response to the vision and his family and friends’ immediate response to the gospel. 4) God used an ordinary man to communicate the gospel to other people, not angels or other angelic beings. This includes you and me. Listen for God’s voice today.
We may be tempted to underestimate the significance of this whole encounter. Remember the hatred between the Samaritans and Jews? Recall the account of Jesus and the “woman at the well.” (I recommend you check out Episode 1 of Season two of “The Chosen” to get a better idea of the depth of the outright hatred flowing both ways.) The despising of the Romans by the Jews was no less intense. To touch a Roman was to be defiled. The Roman customs were pagan and abhorrent. The Roman religion with its multiple gods was blasphemy. Eating with a Roman was an abomination. Peter was doing all of these things in response to the Lord’s directive! Think of a group of people today that you cannot imagine spending time with, whose values and interests, language, and so forth are nothing you approve of. Now, go and dwell among them. Come to think of it, that’s what we’ve been called to do. Jesus’ call is to go to those in need of a doctor. You can even make house calls, Peter did.
Music: “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” Kenny Rogers and Home Free
(I know you heard this in Advent, but it’s appropriate here as well and a terrific, joyous setting.)
O Lord, let me not live to be useless! ―Bishop Stratford, d.1707, Eerdmans’ Book of Famous Prayers, p.113