A. God speaks to Cornelius about Peter.
1. (1-2) Cornelius, a Gentile who served God.
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.
a. A certain man in Caesarea: Caesarea was a predominately Roman city on the shores of the Mediterranean in Judea. It was the headquarters of the Roman governor of the province of Judea. Archaeologists have discovered a stone from a building in Caesarea inscribed with the name Pontus Pilate.
b. Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment: The first thing we learn about Cornelius is that he is an officer in the Roman Army. This is something that would have made him all the more hated by any patriotic Jew.
i. "Thirty-two such Italian cohorts were stationed in the different provinces of the empire. They were made up of Italian volunteers and were considered the most loyal Roman troops." (Lenski) Because he was such a loyal servant of the oppressors of Israel, any patriotic Jewish person of that day would have been automatically prejudiced against Cornelius.
c. Yet, Cornelius was a devout man; a man who feared God, prayed to God always and gave alms generously to those who were in need.
i. Cornelius was in the category of what the Jews called God-fearers (one who feared God). These were Gentiles who loved the God of Israel and were sympathetic to and supportive of the Jewish faith. Yet they stopped short of becoming full Jews in lifestyle and in circumcision.
d. Because of the way the life and heart of Cornelius is described, we can see he was a man who obviously had a real relationship with God. At the same time, he was not a part of the mainstream of Jewish life.
2. (3-6) God sends an angel to tell Cornelius to get Peter.
About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius!" And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, "What is it, lord?" So he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do."
a. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision: We are not told specifically that Cornelius was praying, but it was the ninth hour (3:00 in the afternoon). This was a customary time of prayer for Jews. Also, as Cornelius relates the incident to Peter in Acts 10:30, he specifically says he was praying (at the ninth hour I prayed in my house).
b. He saw clearly in a vision an angel of God: This was not a dream, nor was it actually happening. This was a vision that came in the "mind's eye" of Cornelius. At the same time, it was so vivid that Cornelius would later say, a man stood beside me in bright clothing (Acts 10:30).
c. Send for Simon whose surname is Peter: Probably, Cornelius didn't even know who Peter was. But he knew that he should do what God told him to do, and he could trust that God was speaking to this Peter also (He will tell you what to do).
d. It is significant that God speaks to Cornelius so directly, even calling him by name. It is also significant that Cornelius responds with a healthy fear of the heavenly and holy (he was afraid). This shows that Cornelius had a real relationship with God.
e. God sent an angel in a vision to Cornelius, but He used a man to preach the gospel to him (He will tell you what you must do). "Angels may help to connect men with God's appointed preachers, they are never allowed to do more." (Lenski)
3. (7-8) Cornelius obeys God's command and sends for Peter.
And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
B. Peter's vision of the great sheet.
1. (9-10) Peter on Simon the Tanner's housetop.
The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance.
a. As they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray: As God was speaking to Cornelius, and as Cornelius had sent the messengers to call Peter, God was also speaking to Peter himself.
i. Typically, this is how God operates. He speaks to several people about a matter, not just one. Then confirmation is provided, and out of the mouth of two or three witnesses, a word is established.
ii. "Two men are thirty miles apart. They must be brought together. In order that they may meet, while Joppa is busy with its trade, and Caesarea with its great shipping interests, and will know nothing of what is going on; God within the shadows keeping watch above His own, sends the angel to Caesarea, and grants the ecstatic trance in Joppa. They were thus brought together." (Morgan)
b. In that culture, the housetop was normally used as a sort of "patio." There was nothing strange about Peter going up on the housetop t pray.
c. Then he became very hungry: This often happens during prayer; distractions in our body come while we are trying to direct ourselves to God. However, God would use these very distractions to speak to Peter, as he fell into a trance.
2. (11-16) Peter's vision.
And saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean." And a voice spoke to him again the second time, "What God has cleansed you must not call common." This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
a. All kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air: Peter sees all sorts of kosher and un-kosher animals prominently displayed on this sheet-like background (a great sheet bound at the four corners). Then, Peter hears a command: Rise, Peter, kill and eat.
i. When Peter became very hungry and wanted to eat during prayer, he no doubt regarded it as a distraction. Yet, God used it by speaking to him through a vision regarding food. His hunger may have made him pay more attention!
b. A voice came to him: How does God speak to us? It is rare for God to speak in an audible voice. More often, God speaks to our inner man. As a vision can be "seen" by the "mind's eye," even so we can "hear" the voice of God with the "mind's ear."
i. "God does not need sound waves to fall on an ear drum to speak to a man. When it pleases him to do so, he can speak directly to one's mind where all sound waves are finally interpreted." (Lovett)
c. Rise, Peter, kill and eat: This obviously goes against Peter's commitment as a Jew, which was to never eat anything except kosher foods. Certainly, among the all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air there were non-kosher animals included.
d. Not so, Lord! Peter's response is both absurd and yet typical of us. He says he says "no" to his Lord. The only legitimate answer to a request from our Lord is "yes."
i. Peter had a bad habit of telling Jesus "no" (Matthew 16:22, John 13:8). Compare Peter's response to God (Not so, Lord!) with Cornelius' response to God (What is it, Lord?). On this day, it seems that Cornelius was more responsive to God than Peter was!
ii. Peter had pretty much put God in a box of limitations, and now God was going to shake Peter up to change his thinking. He can do the same for us. "Shake yourself up a little, my brother. If you are too precise may the Lord set you on fire, and consume your bonds of red tape! If you have become so improperly proper that you cannot commit a proper impropriety, then pray God to help you be less proper, for there are many who will never be saved by your instrumentality while you study propriety." (Spurgeon)
iii. Peter was saved, Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit, and Peter had been greatly used by God. At the same time, Peter was still Peter. God wasn't using him because he was perfect, but because he was in the right direction and he was available. We often fall into the trap of thinking that we must be perfected until God can really use us.
e. God responds clearly to Peter: What God has cleansed (declared clean) you must not call common (impure, unholy, unacceptable to God).
i. In Old Testament thinking, there was the holy and the common. The holy was made common when it came into contact with something common, and could only be made holy again through a ritual cleansing. When something was made holy it was called consecration; when it was made common it was called desecration.
ii. At this point, Peter believes that God is speaking about food. But shortly, God will show Peter that He is really getting at another point.
f. This was done three times: For deep emphasis, God repeats this vision three times. Peter was to regard this as important.
3. (17-20) God makes Peter aware of the arrival of the messengers from Cornelius.
Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon's house, and stood before the gate. And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them."
a. Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant: When the vision ended, Peter did not have it all figured out. That would come in time, and as God spoke to Peter through the visitors just arriving at his door.
b. The Spirit said to him: Previously, in Acts 10:13 and 10:15, it was simply said that a voice spoke to Peter. Now, we are told that the Spirit spoke to Peter. This was God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, speaking to Peter.
c. Three men are seeking you . . . go down and go with them, doubting nothing, for I have sent them: At this point, God has not told Peter that his visitors are Gentiles. Normally, a godly Jew like Peter would not associate like this with Gentiles. Knowing this, and knowing Peter's previous resistance (Not so, Lord!), God simply "surprises" Peter with the knowledge that these men are Gentiles. All Peter needs to know is that the Spirit said, I have sent them.
4. (21-23) Peter goes with the messengers back to Caesarea to see Cornelius.
Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, "Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?" And they said, "Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you." Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him.
a. Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius: Peter must have been shocked when he opened the door and saw two servants and a soldier (Acts 10:7) at his door. He would have known immediately that they were not Jews, and he would have wondered why God told him to go with them and why God had sent them.
i. The idea that God could send and use Gentiles would have been entirely new to Peter. God is really expanding Peter's mind and heart here!
b. To summon you to his house, and to hear words from you: The messengers from Cornelius come with an invitation. Peter is to come to the house of Cornelius, and he wants to hear words from you. Of course, this was an invitation Peter couldn't pass up - or could he?
i. A Gentile - worse yet, an officer in the Roman army - wanted to hear the gospel from Peter. Peter has never done anything like this before! How will he respond?
c. Then he invited them in and lodged them: We can see the change in Peter's heart by the way he invited them in and lodged them. Lodged them is literally "to entertain as a guest." Peter didn't just coldly give these Gentiles visitors a room; he entertained them as welcome guests, and he did this against every custom of the Jews.
i. By entertaining these Gentile guests, Peter went against the customs and traditions of Israel, but not against God's Word. Possibly, at this very moment, God flooded Peter's heart with an understanding that though the Old Testament said God's people were not to become like their pagan neighbors, it also said God wanted His people to become a light to their neighbors who didn't know the true God.
ii. "I think angels watched that house that night, with the despised tanner a fellow-disciple, the great apostle, the three Gentiles as they lodged there." (Morgan)
d. On the next day Peter went away with them: Peter is reaching out in love to his Gentile neighbors, in obedience to what God has told him to do.
i. "Centuries ago another Jew had come to Joppa with a solemn message from his God, which he was commissioned to bear far hence to the Gentiles. Jonah, the prophet, took a ship from Joppa and refused obedience to the divine call." (Gaebelein)
ii. Jonah ran from God's call, thinking he could get away from the Lord, and he did not share God's heart for the lost. Peter was willing to re-examine his traditions and prejudices in light of God's word, and he shared God's heart for a lost world. Are you a Jonah or a Peter?
C. The meeting between Cornelius and Peter.
1. (24-26) Peter comes to Cornelius' house.
And the following day they entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I myself am also a man."
a. Cornelius was waiting for them: Cornelius has a lot of faith in God! He is waiting for Peter to come, knowing that since God motivated him to call Peter in the first place, God would bring the plan to completion.
i. Cornelius sends servants to get a man he has never met, come meet him, knowing only that the man is a pious Jew and by tradition would have nothing to do with a Gentile like Cornelius. Despite all that, Cornelius was waiting for them in faith!
b. Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshipped him: Cornelius didn't know Peter, but must have thought him to be a special man of God, so fell down at his feet and worshipped him. This reaction was understandable, though wrong. Peter corrected Cornelius by saying, "Stand up; I myself am also a man." If Cornelius should not give such reverence to Peter, neither should Peter receive it.
i. Significantly, whenever worship is offered to men or angels (Revelation 19:10), it is refused. But Jesus received such worship freely (Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 28:9). This proves that Jesus is more than a man, and greater than any angel (Luke 4:8).
ii. In the great St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, there is a huge statue of Peter, where people come and kiss the toe of the statue. This is undue and inappropriate reverence towards any man or angel. We might almost wish that Peter would visit the cathedral named after him and set those people straight!
iii. "Peter refused both to be treated by Cornelius as if he were a god, and to treat Cornelius as if he were a dog." (Stott)
2. (27-29) Entering Cornelius' house, Peter explains why he came.
And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. Then he said to them, "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?"
a. He went in is one of the shortest, yet most important passages of this section. Peter is actually entering the house of a Gentile, something that Jewish customs and traditions strictly prohibited. By entering a Gentile's home, Peter is showing that his heart and mind have changed, and that he has learned the lesson of the vision of the great sheet.
i. "The principle subject of this chapter is not so much the conversion of Cornelius as the conversion of Peter." (Stott)
b. Then he said to them: Peter must explain why he, a godly Jew (who was also a Christian) entered a Gentile's house. So, he explains the message he received in the vision, realizing that God wasn't only (or even primarily) talking about food in the vision (I should not call any man common or unclean).
i. In saying "I should not call any man common or unclean," Peter understood that the vision was about people, not food. But the principle still relates to food. We understand believers are not under any obligation to keep a kosher diet. How we eat may be better or worse from a health perspective, but it doesn't make us any more right with God.
ii. Jesus spoke of this principle: Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart, but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods? (Mark 7:19).
iii. Paul knew this principle: I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself (Romans 14:14).
iv. Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink . . . which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).
v. Yet the connection between unclean persons and unclean foods was important. The idea of unkosher food was closely connected to the idea of unkosher people. "It was largely because of their lack of scruples in food matters that Gentiles were ritually unsafe people for a pious Jew to meet socially." (Bruce)
c. Therefore I came confirms it. If Peter had not received this vision, he would have never traveled with these Gentile messengers! God had to prepare Peter's heart with the vision before Peter would have come.
3. (30-33) Cornelius explains why he sent for Peter.
So Cornelius said, "Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.' So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God."
a. Cornelius, your prayer has been heard: Cornelius was praying, and the eventual answer to his prayer was the arrival of Peter with the gospel. So, what was Cornelius' prayer?
b. Undoubtedly, Cornelius was praying either generally to draw closer to God, or specifically that God would send the Messiah. God would answer this prayer through the gospel Peter brought to Cornelius.
c. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God: Peter was living a preacher's dream. His audience is attentive and well-prepared by the Holy Spirit.
4. (34-43) Peter's short sermon to the Gentiles at Cornelius' house.
Then Peter opened his mouth and said: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ; He is Lord of all; that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins."
a. In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality is the foundation for Peter's understanding that the gospel should now go forth to Gentiles. This statement goes completely against the prevailing Jewish thought that God certainly did show partiality, towards the Jews and against the Gentiles. In essence, many Jews of Peter's day thought that God loved the Jews while hating the Gentiles.
i. A Jewish man would begin every day with a prayer thanking God that he was not a slave, a Gentile, or a woman. A basic part of the Jewish religion in the days of the New Testament was an oath that promised that one would never help a Gentile under any circumstances, such as giving directions if they were asked. But it went even as far as refusing to help a Gentile woman at the time of her sorest need - when she was giving birth - because the result would only be bringing another Gentile into the world.
ii. If a Jew married a Gentile, the Jewish community would have a funeral for the Jew and consider them dead. It was thought that to even enter the house of a Gentile made a Jew unclean before God. Ancient Jewish writings tell us of a Gentile woman who came to a rabbi. She confessed that she was a sinner and asked to be admitted to the Jewish faith. "Rabbi," she said, "bring me near." The Rabbi refused and simply shut the door in her face.
iii. But the Gentiles could give as good as they got from the Jews. Gentiles despised Jews as weird traditionalists, and believed that they were evil plotters who worshipped pigs. After all, Jews refused to eat pork, so they must worship pigs!
iv. All of this changed with the spread of the gospel. Christianity was the first religion to disregard racial, cultural and national limitations.
v. When the Jews showed this kind of partiality they were not being faithful to God's heart as revealed in the Old Testament. The idea that God shows no partiality is also stated in Deuteronomy 10:17 and 2 Chronicles 19:7: For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. (Deuteronomy 10:17)
b. Peter's point in saying but in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him is not to imply that men like Cornelius were already right with God and don't need to become Christians. Instead, the point is that they need not feel excluded from God because of their national background.
i. We often think God sees color; He only sees the heart. God does not see economic status; He only sees the heart. He doesn't see nationality or ethnic group; He only sees the heart.
c. He is Lord of all is a powerful phrase, showing the deity of Jesus. How could anyone say this of someone who is not God?
d. Whom they killed by hanging on a tree . . . Him God raised up on the third day: Notably, Peter's preaching to the Gentiles is essentially the same as his preaching to the Jews. He presents the person and work of Jesus Christ, with an emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus and our responsibility before God in light of these things.
i. Peter didn't have one sermon for one group and another sermon for another. All people needed to be saved by coming to a living faith in a living Jesus Christ.
e. The brief sermon concludes with an understanding of the broadness of God's promise of salvation: Whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins. Note it carefully: Whoever believes! Jew or Gentile! Black or white! Rich or poor!
f. This message had great preparation. Peter was prepared by the Holy Spirit, and those at Cornelius' house were prepared to hear the message Peter brought. Our blessing is greatly increased when we prepare ourselves to hear the word of God.
5. (44-48) God-fearing Gentiles are saved, filled with the Holy Spirit, and baptized.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.
a. While Peter was still speaking these words: Salvation came when each one of these Gentiles responded to Peter's message with believing faith in their hearts, so that they were actually saved while they listened.
i. While listening to Peter, these people made a secret and invisible transaction in their hearts with God, by setting their faith in Jesus Christ.
ii. The moment of a person's salvation isn't necessarily when they raise a hand or come forward at an evangelistic invitation. It is more likely at the moment they surrender to God and embrace Jesus in the sincerity of their hearts.
iii. Peter was willing to allow the Holy Spirit interrupt his sermon. The Holy Spirit was doing the greater work in the hearts of those listening, and Peter went with the flow. He stopped and called for their baptism.
iv. Were these the first Gentiles to be saved? Gentiles had probably received salvation in the eight years since Pentecost (Acts 2). But those Gentiles were saved as they embraced Judaism as well as Christianity. Gentiles may have received salvation before this, but they were saved as Jews, not Gentiles.
b. The Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word . . . they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God: Their filling with the Holy Spirit was accompanied by the demonstration of spiritual gifts. This was a filling with the Holy Spirit in two senses. First, in the sense that He indwells and abides in every believer. Second, in the sense of a special empowering with gifts and graces from the Holy Spirit.
i. When they spoke with tongues, it was to magnify God, not to teach men. The audience was God, not man, as is consistent with the principle of 1 Corinthians 14:2.
c. Those of the circumcision who believed were astonished: The Jewish Christians present were amazed. They may have understood that God was now "starting" to love the Gentiles, but who would have thought God would fill Gentiles with the Holy Spirit in the same manner and degree as the Jews?
i. Peter makes the point clearly when he notes that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. It wasn't just that God was loving or blessing the Gentiles that astonished them. It was that God was loving and blessing the Gentiles just as He loved and blessed the Jews, and He did it while they were still Gentiles!
d. He commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord: The baptism in water did not save them. Instead, their baptism recognized the salvation they had already received.
5. This entrance of Gentiles into the church was not a "new" plan, but something promised long before.
a. The Old Testament looked for the day when a light would shine in the darkness of the Gentile world: Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the LORD is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; but the LORD will arise over you, and His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)
b. God promised Abraham, and his descendants, that the blessing that came through him would extend to all nations (Genesis 12:1-4). Here, we see Jesus - the greatest blessing from Abraham - extended to the nations.
c. Remember Jesus' promise of other sheep, not of this fold in John 10:16. Jesus also promised, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself (John 12:32).
d. The first Gentile Jesus dealt with in His public ministry was a Roman centurion from Capernaum. When Jesus healed that centurion's servant, He declared that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:5-13).
e. We should also see that Cornelius was an undoubtedly good man; yet he needed Jesus. Even good people, who are respectful towards God, still need to come to Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and put all their trust in who Jesus is and what He has done for them.