In this essay we are studying Acts 10:1-48, which concerns the most serious problem that faced the early church, namely, what to do with Gentile believers. Since all of the earliest believers were Jews, I doubt that any of them in those early days gave a thought to the possibility of Gentiles accepting Christ. And if the subject had come up, as it did later, the Jewish response would have been that the Gentile believers would have to become Jews in order to be Christians. However, that was not God’s position.
God was now ready for Gentile believers to be accepted into the fellowship of the Church; but he was not interested in their becoming part of the Old Covenant community. That is, it was not part of God’s plan that Gentile believers in Jesus become Jews to be saved. And Peter is God’s chosen instrument to get that across.
Now, as we mentioned in the previous essay, Peter had all of the normal Jewish prejudices against Gentiles. And here in chapter 10 we see how God dealt with Peter in this matter, and how Peter wrestled with it. Let’s look at verses 1-8.
Caesarea was the provincial headquarters for the Romans. It was located on the Mediterranean coast a little more than 30 miles north of Joppa. Roman “cohort” consisted of 600 men, or one tenth of a legion, which ideally had 6,000. A “centurion” commanded 100 men, thus the name. Centurions were the backbone of the Roman legions. They were the equivalent of company commanders in our modern infantry.
Now we learn several things about Cornelius here. First, he was a Gentile, an Italian (10:1). Second, Cornelius was a God-fearer (10:2a). It was fairly common for Gentiles to be attracted to Judaism, and to believe in the God of Judaism, the true God. Some of them even attended synagogue services. But although they were attracted to Judaism’s God, they were not attracted to Judaism. To convert to Judaism involved a complicated process, and a full commitment to Jewish Law and ritual. That was more than a typical Gentile could handle. Therefore scholars call these believing Gentiles God-fearers. Third, Cornelius was generous. “He gave alms liberally,” we are told (10:2b). And fourth, Cornelius was a man of prayer. He “prayed constantly to God” (10:2c).
It is very important to note in verse three that God responded positively to Cornelius, even though he was a Gentile, and thus outside of the Covenant relationship. The Lord gave Cornelius a vision in which an angel came to him and told him that his prayers had been heard and that he was to send two men to Joppa to get Peter. So Cornelius chose two slaves and a soldier and sent them to Joppa to find Peter, as the angel had instructed him. I guess Cornelius thought, if it is a good thing that two men are sent to get Peter, three men would be better. At any rate, the important thing here is the fact that at this critical time in Church history, we see that God himself initiated the expansion of the Church to Gentiles.
Although the Jews of the time didn’t realize it, that had been God’s plan all along. You will remember that in the Old Testament God told Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed by him (Gen. 18:18). Then a little later God told Abraham that his offspring would be a blessing to the nations (22:18; 26:4). In the book of Isaiah, the prophet foretold that one day the nations (Gentiles) would stream to the Lord’s house on Mount Zion to learn the Lord’s ways so that they could walk in his paths (Is. 2:1-3). And in Is. 56:6-7 the prophet declares that foreigners, Gentiles, would join themselves to the Lord, minister to him, and love and serve him. And in the same context the Lord declares that his house would be a house of prayer “for all peoples” (my emphasis).
We see in verse nine that the next day about noon Peter was on the roof of Simon’s house praying. He was hungry, because he had not yet eaten lunch. He “fell into a trance,” and saw what appeared to be a huge sheet being lowered by its corners to the rooftop. This use of the word “trance” here is interesting. The Greek word that is translated “trance” is the word from which we get the English word “ecstasy.” It is ekstasis, which literally means, “to stand outside of oneself.” The only other place in the New Testament where the word appears also is in Acts. In Acts 22:17 Paul speaks of being in a trance in the Temple on one occasion.
The sheet that Peter saw lowered onto the roof contained many animals and reptiles, all of which the Old Testament forbade Jews to eat (vv. 9-12). And then a voice told Peter to “kill and eat” (v. 13). Of course being a good Jew, Peter refused. And then the voice told Peter, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (v. 15). In order to drive home the point, the vision occurred twice more; and then the people from Cornelius arrived at the gate (vv. 16-17). The Holy Spirit told Peter that he had sent the people from Cornelius, and that Peter was to receive them, which he did (vv. 19-20, 23).
Verse 28 informs us that sometime after the vision of the sheet and the unclean animals, God revealed to Peter what the vision meant. The animals that Peter had been told to kill and eat represented not unclean animals, but unclean people, whom God had cleansed. “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean,” says Peter.
Now then, the vision given to Peter while in the trance prepared him for the visitors from Cornelius and enabled him to accept their invitation to go to Caesarea. And it required that sort of dramatic event to enable him. For no self-respecting Jew would even enter the house of a despised Gentile. But Peter obeyed the Holy Spirit. When he arrived, at Cornelius’ house, he found all of Cornelius’ family and friends waiting to hear from him.
It is interesting to see how God gradually led Peter to a place in his religious life where he could handle the task God was calling him to do; namely, accept Gentiles into the fellowship of the Church. Earlier there was the conversion and acceptance of Samaritans, who were half Gentile. That assuredly moved him away from a strict Jewish position. And then there obviously was an experience that enabled Peter to take a relaxed attitude towards the Jewish laws of clean and unclean, because he was staying in the home of a tanner. Tanners worked with dead animals on a consistent basis, and staying in the house of a tanner would have made Peter unclean. After the vision of the sheet with the unclean animals in it, Peter was willing to enter the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. So having gone that far, Peter was now prepared to accept the religious fellowship of full-fledged Gentiles.
Coming back to the story, through verse 29 Cornelius, his entire household, and his friends were gathered together. And Peter and several Jewish brothers had come and were present in the house. I am going to skip over verses 30-33, because in those verses, Cornelius simply repeats what had happened in earlier verses.
In verses 34-43 Peter began to preach. The sermon was mostly about Jesus and the good news of forgiveness of sins. Then in verses 44-48, while Peter was preaching, a major event took place that absolutely amazed the Jews who were present. The Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles just as he had fallen on the Jewish believers, including speaking in tongues. Peter ordered the believing Gentiles to be baptized (vv. 47-48), and by doing so he officially brought them into the fellowship of the Church. They thus were the first full Gentiles to be accepted. Again I remind you that the Samaritans were not fully Gentiles.
Now this bringing of Gentiles into the church set off a controversy, which we will study in the next essay.