Tearing Down Walls

Acts 10:1-33      |     Sermon Resources     |     19 April 2020


We come this week to the story of Peter and Cornelius which happens to be the longest single narrative in the book of Acts.  Luke draws attention to the importance of this encounter not only with the space the story occupies but also through the use of repetition.  Cornelius’ vision is recounted a total of four times, Peter has his vision repeated to him three times, and the entire episode is recounted twice – in chapter 10 by the narrator Luke and again in chapter 11 in a speech by Peter.  It would seem that God really wants us to pay attention to what happens in this passage!

This week we will focus our attention on the climactic events leading up Peter’s first sermon to a Gentile audience.  We notice once again that God uses his heavenly angels to empower human messengers to preach the gospel rather than preaching directly through the angels themselves.  And we notice as well that this is a story of conversion, but the surprise is that the main person converted is not Cornelius the Gentile but Peter the Apostle.

We will look at the first three scenes in this extended passage using these headings (1) Cornelius’s Command, (2) Peter’s Perplexity, and (3) an Extraordinary Embrace.


#1 Cornelius’s Command

Our first scene takes place in the Roman port city of Caesarea (v.1) named for August Caesar and not to be confused with the land-locked Galilean city of Caesarea Philippi (c.f. Mark 8:27).  Here there was stationed a centurion named Cornelius who was part of the Italian Cohort (v.1).  With this description we can surmise that Cornelius was a man of authority who was also greatly respected having a post in an elite branch of the Roman military.  His position would have also led to significant wealth as is evidenced by the servants (v.7) who work for him.  On top of all this, we see that he was a devout man who feared God (v.2) and generously gave to others.

Had Peter come across Cornelius in the days prior to his rooftop vision, however, none of these things would have mattered to him at all.  That Cornelius was a respected, wealthy, devout, generous man of great authority would have mattered little compared to the fact that was a Gentile.  If you had asked Peter what he thought about Cornelius, he would likely have responded with something like, “He is well thought of – for a Gentile!” or “He certainly is devout – for a Gentile!”  All that mattered to orthodox Jews and even the first Christians was whether not someone was of a Jewish or non-Jewish background.  It is hard to overstate the stark separation that existed between Jew and Gentile in the ancient world.

Consider these words from the 19th century Jewish-turned-Christian scholar, Alfred Edersheim in his Sketches of Jewish Social Life:

From the New Testament we know, that to enter the house of a heathen defiled till the evening (John 18:28), and that all familiar intercourse with Gentiles was forbidden (Acts 10:28). So terrible was the intolerance, that a Jewess was actually forbidden to give help to her heathen neighbour, when about to become a mother (Avod. S. ii. 1)! … But the separation went much beyond what ordinary minds might be prepared for. Milk drawn from a cow by heathen hands, bread and oil prepared by them, might indeed be sold to strangers, but not used by Israelites. No pious Jew would of course have sat down at the table of a Gentile (Acts 11:3; Gal 2:12). If a heathen were invited to a Jewish house, he might not be left alone in the room, else every article of food or drink on the table was henceforth to be regarded as unclean.  (Sketches, p.15-16)

Sadly, this divide carried over into the church.  When Jesus told his followers that they would be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (c.f. Acts 1:8), surely Peter and others thought he was referring to the ends of the Jewish earth.  Even with all the good qualities Cornelius possessed, at the end of the day he was still a Gentile, and therefore excluded from hearing the good news of the Messiah.

Though overlooked by the church, he was not overlooked by Jesus.  In the middle of the afternoon, at about the ninth hour, he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God (v.3).  He responds as nearly everyone in the Bible does when they encounter an angel, with terror (v.4).  The angel tells him that God has taken note of his prayers and alms and that he should send for one Simon, who is called Peter who is lodging with one Simon, a tanner in the smaller city of Joppa (v.4-6).

Cornelius who is a man of authority himself, obeys the command given by the angel and sends three men to fetch Peter.


#2 Peter’s Perplexity

Our next scene takes place in Joppa.  Joppa was located about 30 miles south along the Mediterranean coast.  This is the same Joppa to which Jonah once fled in a vain attempt to escape going to Nineveh (c.f. Jonah 1:3).

While Cornelius’ messengers were approaching the city at about noon (the sixth hour), Peter was headed to the housetop in order to pray (v.9).  He became hungry and while his food was being prepared, and he fell into a trance (v.10).  His vision of a great sheet descending (v.11) from heaven might appear to us as a movie screen.  In this sheet displayed before him were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air (v.12).  These categories of animals are frequently referred to in the Bible – c.f. Genesis 6:20 and Romans 1:23. At least some of these animals, if not all, were considered unclean (c.f. Leviticus 11:1-47).  The Jewish ceremonial law forbade the eating of unclean animals.

This explains why when Peter heard a voice say to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (v.13), he immediately objected saying, “I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (v.14).  It would seem that Peter thought this was a test of his faithfulness.  But the voice responded, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (v.15).  We are told that this happened three times (v.16).  It’s not clear what exactly happened three times, but it is significant that it did happen three times.  Remember that three times Peter denied Jesus (c.f. Luke 22:54-62) and three times he was restored and commissioned by Jesus (c.f. John 21:15-19) and now three times he has this vision from God.

Peter was still inwardly perplexed about the vision when Cornelius’ messengers arrived (v.17).  The Holy Spirit informed Peter that three men had arrived for him and that he should accompany them without hesitation (v.20).  Peter invites the men into Simon’s house to be his guests (v.23).


#3 Extraordinary Embrace

Our final scene is a traveling scene between Joppa and Caesarea.

Peter and some of the brothers (according to Peter’s later account 6 brothers, c.f. Acts 11:12) joined Cornelius’ men and made the overnight trek to Caesarea arriving the following day (v.23-24).   Cornelius was expecting them and called together his relatives and close friends (v.24).  Has any preacher ever had so eager an audience as Peter had on this day?  Prepared for by an angel and organized by a centurion, a small crowd waited to hear what Peter had to say.

Upon meeting Peter, Cornelius fell down at his feet and worshipped him (v.25).  Peter knew right away that this was not an appropriate response and said to him plainly, “Stand up; I too am a man” (v.26).  Regardless, Cornelius was thoroughly prepared to hear what Peter had to say.

Can you picture this scene now?  Peter is either inside Cornelius’s home or at least standing on his property addressing a sizable Gentile crowd.  He begins, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or visit anyone of another nation” (v.28).  Now how is that for warm greeting?!  When Peter says it is “unlawful,” he is not referring to the Old Testament but rather to the traditions that had developed overtime that made his visit “taboo.”

Happily, Peter continues, “but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (v.28). Obviously, Peter understood his rooftop vision to be about more than just the Jewish dietary restrictions as he does not refer to animals but to people.  This is huge!  Peter is learning that while the moral law remains firmly in place, the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ.  One does not have to first become ceremonially Jewish before becoming a Christian.

Peter is “catching up” to what God had been doing.  Jesus death on the cross had broken down the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile (c.f. Ephesians 2:14).  Jesus intended his church to be his witnesses to Jew and Gentile alike – to the very ends of the earth.  Peter understood this now.

Our scene ends this week with Cornelius recounting to Peter the vision he saw, and he concludes saying that we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord (v.33).

Next week we will examine Peter’s remarkable sermon to his Gentile audience.


Discussion Questions

  1. What do we learn about Cornelius from this passage? Why is it significant that he is a Gentile?
  2. Why do you think the angel has Cornelius send for Peter rather than just preach to Cornelius himself?
  3. Explain the vision that Peter has. What happens? Why is it important? Why do you think he was he so perplexed by it?
  4. Peter obeyed even though he was still perplexed.  Have you ever had to obey even though you were still confused?  Are there any areas in your life right now that you need to pursue obedience even though you don’t completely understand the reason why?
  5. Explain the words that Peter heard: “What God has made clean, do not call common.”  What does this mean for Peter?  What is the application for us today?
  6. Peter learned that the gospel was for all people — Jew and Gentile alike.  Are there people that you tend to write off as being beyond the reach of the gospel?  How does this passage speak to that?
  7. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?

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