The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, along with persecution and geographical changes, quickly reshapes the world for Jesus’ followers. Before Acts 10, the disciples generally understood Jesus’ message to be exclusive for the Jewish people in spite of Jesus’ clear directive to make disciples of all nations. But a challenge arrives in Acts 10.
It is the same challenge we sometimes face when we ask, “Do I really have to take the Gospel there? To those people? To that man? Certainly, that’s not what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.'” If there hasn’t been a moment–or, more than likely, a season–when you felt this resistance to God’s outward call, then it’s coming.
In Acts 10, everything changes for Peter as he faces this resistance. Perhaps Philip had already awoken to the far reach of Jesus’ message when an angel of the Lord directed him to find an Ethiopian eunuch who needed clarification about Isaiah in Acts 8. In Acts 9, Luke introduced the story of Saul’s conversion on the Damascus road with the words of Jesus, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles…” (9:15). God now awakens Peter by moving in to orchestrate the encounter with Cornelius.
Let’s set the scenes.
Background: Before Acts 2, the disciples’ reality centered on the resurrected Jesus who was physically present with them. What Roman guard or Jewish leader dared approach Jesus’ band of disciples with the evidence of resurrection sitting in their midst? The Gospel writers don’t give any accounts of run-ins with the authorities during the 40 days after his resurrection. We only have the makings of a lie in Matthew 28:11-15, when the soldiers conspired with the chief priests to say that Jesus’ disciples stole the body. That story spread widely. But Jesus was among them and the word leaked out: He is alive! As 10 days became 40, a new rumor also began: Jesus is gone; he’s ascended into Heaven and his disciples saw it happen! The disciples waited for the Holy Spirit, and then they couldn’t wait to tell the story.
Scene 1: One afternoon in Caesarea Maritima, a military town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Cornelius prays as is his habit. He is a Roman centurion, stationed in Judea to stabilize Caesar’s power. We know that he is a God-fearing man, well-liked among the Jewish population, and someone who has just had an angel disrupt his sleep.
Scene 2: On a rooftop in Joppa, Peter is praying so long that he works up an appetite. We know that Peter had been traveling throughout the region, healing people in the name of Jesus. In Joppa, he had healed a paralytic and was told that Tabitha, someone already ministering in the area, had just died. He went to her house, got on his knees, prayed, and said, “Tabitha, get up.” By the power of Jesus, she resurrected from the dead (Acts 9:32-43). Now on the rooftop, Peter is just about to have his afternoon interrupted with a vision from God.
An angel of the Lord comes to Cornelius because he’s not your ordinary Roman. He’s kind, benevolent, and prayerful, so much so that the angel says his gifts to the poor have come up to God as a memorial offering. What a testimony, especially when we consider that Cornelius is a Gentile and not yet “in the faith.” The angel tells him where to find Peter and invites him to bring Peter back to Caesarea. This whole episode seems to be in response to a prayer of Cornelius which we aren’t given. We can assume it’s a prayer for God to reveal Himself to him–His will, His ways, His Truth.
What a remarkable story of God’s working in the life of Cornelius! We all know people whom others dismiss as lost causes. Maybe we dismiss them too. Peter had no idea that God was stirring in a centurion’s heart (of all people), and that Peter himself would come into a Roman military zone to baptize this man and his family, counting them among Jesus’ followers.
The feast that falls from Heaven in Peter’s vision is a platter of unclean animals. A voice tells him to kill and eat the animals. “Surely not, Lord,” Peter replies, rightly labeling the animals as unclean, according to Levitical teaching. The response is a shock. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean,” says the voice.
The interaction occurs three times, like Peter’s denial and his restoration at the end of John’s Gospel. Peter doesn’t know what to do. He sits and thinks about what it means. Now the Spirit prompts him. “Simon, three men are looking for you … Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them” (10:19-20). Between the vision and the Holy Spirit, God gets Peter’s attention.
Are we as clear and sober-minded to listen and react? Sometimes I feel I’m so busy that if a message did come to me, I’d have a thousand excuses as to its reason and what my response should be.
Peter sits and thinks. He waits on the Lord, and the Lord answers him–not completely, but enough to take the next step. When he meets the men and follows them to Cornelius’ house, he finds a large crowd of Cornelius’ relatives and close friends. Peter says to them, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (10:28).
After Cornelius tells the story of his angelic message, Peter remarkably responds, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears Him and does what is right” (10:34-35). Is this the same Peter? He goes on to tell those who are gathered about his relationship with Jesus and the truth of his death and resurrection. Then, the Holy Spirit comes down and, “The circumcised believers … were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (10:45).
Peter’s vision isn’t about unclean animals; it’s about unclean people whom God came to redeem–the uncircumcised, the non-Jewish, the outcast, the sinner. It’s about the opening of the Gospel to people like you and me. For a long time, I didn’t connect these dots of the feast from Heaven and the path to Caesarea, but the text obviously moves in this direction.
Peter is distracted by who gets to come to Jesus, but God corrects him in the most unlikely of places: a pagan military outpost. It’s here where the Gospel begins to move out of the expected bounds, as Peter baptizes these Gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ. And it’s a testimony that is heard throughout Judea.
In Acts 11, Peter has to explain his actions. His statement at the end might unsettle us. “I remembered what the Lord had said,” Peter tells them, “‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as He gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:16-17). The next verse is a testimony to the humility the Holy Spirit brings: “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life'” (11:18).
How do we hear from God? Do we give enough space in our week to sit and wait on Him? Are we confident enough in the Holy Spirit’s work to move out – off into a place where we might know the next step but not the one after it? Are we seeking God by slowing down and waiting on Him? The story of Peter and Cornelius points to the Holy Spirit working in advance of our actions.
God will make a way, where there seems to be no way.
He works in ways we cannot see; He will make a way for me.
By a roadway in the wilderness, He’ll lead me.
And rivers in the desert will I see.
Heaven and Earth will fade, but His Word will still remain.
And He will do something new today.
Let us trust him anew right now, while today is still called today.
Written by a member of our church staff