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The Quest for Inclusive Fellowship—Acts 10-11

  • The conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius (10:1-11:18) is a major development in the narrative of Acts, as God confirms through Peter that Gentiles have the same access as Jews to the salvation available through Jesus Christ (see 10:34-35).
  • This prepares the way for the Jerusalem Council’s decision (ch. 15) and Luke’s detailed account of the missionary journeys of Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles (chs. 13-28).
  • Central to the Cornelius story is the theme that God, not Peter, orchestrates these events and initiates the mission to the Gentiles.
  • Repetition demonstrates the story’s importance: Luke describes Cornelius’ vision four times (10:3-6, 22, 30-32; 11:13-14) and Peter’s vision twice (10:9-16; 11:4-10), and Peter recounts the whole episode to the Jerusalem church (11:4-17).
Cornelius Calls for Peter
  • Luke introduces Cornelius as a devout seeker of God, a prime candidate for entrance into the church.
  • Yet it is God who initiates the advance of the gospel, this time through a vision given to Cornelius.
10 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment.
  • Caesarea Maritima on the coast—the Roman administrative center of Judea.
  • Herod the Great built it on a grand scale ca. 25-13 BC and named it for Caesar Augustus.
  • A centurion was a commander of about 100 men.  They were the backbone of the Roman army.
  • Regiments had both numbers and names and were made up of about 600 soldiers.
  • Ten regiments made up a Roman legion (about 6000 troops).
  • Although stationed in Caesarea, Cornelius would probably return to Rome soon.  Thus, his conversion was a major stepping-stone for spreading the Good News to the empire’s capital city.

 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
  • During the typical 20-year span of military service soldiers were officially prohibited marriage.  
  • Officers usually looked the other way, however, at liaisons between soldiers and local women, and the government usually recognized these unions as marriages when soldiers retired.
  • Most soldiers remained stationed in particular areas and were unhappy to be moved.
  • Alternatively, hey could marry on retirement.
  • By ancient definitions, “family” could also include servants (v. 7), though Cornelius has relatives in the more specific sense (v. 24).
  • God-fearing.  Diaspora Jews recognized many Gentiles who had not become proselytes (converts) to Judaism and yet were attracted to the synagogues and the one true God.
  • What will happen to the heathen who have never heard about Christ?  This question about God’s justice is often asked.  Cornelius wasn’t a believer in Christ, but he was seeking God and was reverent and generous.  Therefore, God sent Peter to tell Cornelius about Christ.  This shows that God “rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).  Cornelius’ story demonstrates God’s willingness to use extraordinary means to reach those who desire to know him.  Those who sincerely seek God will find him!  God made Cornelius’ knowledge complete.

 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
  • Cornelius was praying at this time, which was one of the regular times of prayer, corresponding with the evening offering in the temple.
  • This notice underlines Cornelius’ devoutness.
  • God speaks to his people in remarkably different ways—through the written Scriptures, through the words of others, through circumstances and events.  It is up to us to be listen, to be perceptive, to be alert.  What is God trying to say to you today?

Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.
  • Memorial offering—may be the OT language of sacrifice (Leviticus 2:2, 9, 16; cf. Philippians 4:18), though it could simply mean “as a constant reminder (of your faithfulness).”

 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
Peter’s Vision

  • Peter’s symbolic vision of “unclean” animals and God’s command not to “call anything impure that God has made clean” prepare Peter to meet the Gentile centurion Cornelius and emphasize God’s initiative in the church’s outreach to the Gentiles.

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.
  • People normally rested from the day’s activities for a period of time around midday.
  • People used their homes’ flat roofs for a wide range of activities, from drying flax to sleeping, and, here, having a private place to pray.
  • Joppa was some 30 miles south of Caesarea; given the time of Cornelius’ vision, to reach Peter around noon the next day would require hard riding on horses or walking through part of the night. (The return journey is less demanding.)

 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 
  • Many people in the ancient world would have a light meal around noon.

11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.
  • For a strict pietist, the presence of unclean animals such as reptiles would contaminate all the others.  
  • During the Maccabean era, Jewish people suffered much for their food laws, which were a deeply engrained part of their upbringing.
  • The food laws made it difficult for Jews to eat with Gentiles without risking defilement.  In fact, Gentiles themselves were often seen as “unclean.”  Peter’s vision meant that he should not look upon the Gentiles as inferior people whom God would not redeem.  Before having the vision, Peter would have thought that a Gentile Roman officer could not become a follower of Christ.  Afterward he understood that it was his responsibility to go with the messengers into a Gentile home and tell Cornelius the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ.

 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
  • Peter protests, as did Ezekiel when confronted with an exhortation to eat what appears impure (Ezekiel 4:14; God made a concession in 4:15).
  • Peter probably thinks this is a test of his faithfulness and so refuses to eat.

15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
  • One of the most basic and practical lessons from this encounter is that when God speaks, we must not challenge what he says.  Doubting God is the rebellion of Eden.  When God says something is so, we must not debate with him.  The right response is humble submission to his revealed truth.  Are you trying to argue with God over some point that he has already made clear?

16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
  • Three times confirms its validity.

17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate.
  • Paired visions (here, those of Cornelius and Peter) were deemed very convincing, because they were independent attestations.
  • Tanners would generally live in the same neighborhood as other tanners, naturally near water, as here.
  • Once in a neighborhood, visitors normally located homes by asking directions.
  • Homeowners with outer gates possessed more resources than average.

 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three[1] men are looking for you.
  • The Spirit was often associated with prophetic insight and speech; Luke emphasizes the Spirit’s leading in crossing barriers (1:8; 8:29).

 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”
  • Peter is already beginning to understand the significance of the vision since Jews would not normally stay under the same roof as an “unclean” Gentile.

22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
  • Bringing into one’s home Gentiles who had probably worshiped idols violated strict Jewish purity protocols; but then, the house already belongs to a tanner (9:43).
  • Hospitality obligations demanded offering food to the guests; stricter Jewish circles, however, forbade eating with Gentiles.
  • Because Joppa, though predominantly Jewish, included many Gentiles, some Jewish residents may have been less particular about such rules, but the Jerusalem church includes many conservative members (see 11:2-3).
  • Cornelius was religious, devoted, generous, respected, and sincere.  However, he was still spiritually separated from God.  Because he needed to understand the gospel, God sent Peter to present to him the truth about salvation.  Be careful not to equate earnestness with righteousness before God.  We are brought into right standing before God by faith in Christ alone.  Have you trusted in Jesus?  Are you sharing with others—even those who seem religious—the truth that Christ is the only way to God?
Peter at Cornelius’s House
  • Peter’s journey to Cornelius’ house, his preaching there, and the reception of the Spirit by Cornelius and his household mark the first explicit Gentile conversion and reception of the Spirit in Acts.
  • Some people call this episode the “Gentile Pentecost.”

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.
  • Caesarea was about 30 miles beyond Joppa; they had stayed overnight somewhere, probably lodging in a town that included both Jewish and Gentile residents.
  • Peter wisely takes “some of the believers from Joppa”—Jewish Christians (“six brothers” according to 11:12)—as witnesses to whatever happens.
  • In this period, soldiers were often stationed in the regions where they were recruited; the relatives, probably Syrians, could be relatives of Cornelius or of his wife (whether she was official or unofficial).

 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.
  • Gentiles prostrated themselves before gods and rulers, or sometimes important persons from who they needed to beg a favor.

 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”
  • Even Gentiles expected mortals to reject divine honors; Peter (like Paul in 14:11-15) behaves honorably here, in contrast to Herod Agrippa in 12:22-23).

27 While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said 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.
  • Strict Jews avoided eating with Gentiles.
  • Ethnic division between Jews and Syrians in Caesarea (11:1) often led to violence; God, however, was working to transcend this barrier.
  • Peter repeatedly affirms that he now understands the meaning of the vision.
  • The separation between Jew (“clean”) and Gentile (“unclean”) is being broken down.

 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”
30 Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. 
  • Literally “from the fourth day until this hour,” which is equivalent to “three days ago.”

Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
  • Ancient literature often repeated events or messages when people recounted them, although by this period they preferred to vary the wording.

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
  • It was customary to begin speeches by praising (or here, at least accepting) the hearers.
  • God’s impartiality (cf. Deuteronomy 10:17; Romans 2:11) was a common emphasis in Jewish thought.
  • Some Greek writers also appealed to this idea to underline the universality of chief deities.
  • Perhaps the greatest barrier to the spread of the Good News in the first century was the Jewish-Gentile conflict.  We should not allow any barrier—language, culture, race, geography, economic level, or educational level—to keep us from telling others about Christ.
  • Every nation has people who are restless for God, ready to receive the Good News—but someone must take it to them.  Seeking God is not enough—people must find him.  How then shall seekers find God without someone to point the way?  Is God asking you to show someone the way to him? (Romans 10:14-15)

 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.
  • Evokes the promised era of restoration in Isaiah 52:7.
  • The message goes first to the “people of Israel” (Romans 1:16-17) and then to all nations.
  • Jewish people called God “Lord of all,” a title here applied to Jesus.
  • Some scholars contrast this claim with the emperor’s title of “lord” and his claim to establish peace (cf. Luke 2:14).

 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
  • Jesus being anointed recalls Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18 (“Christ” also is literally “anointed one,” evoking the anointing of kings).
  • Peter concisely summarizes the key events of Jesus’ ministry as the Gospels record them: (1) the preaching of John the Baptist, (2) Jesus anointed with the Spirit at his baptism, (3) healing and exorcisms in Galilee, (4) journey through Judea to Jerusalem, (5) arrest and crucifixion, (6) resurrection on the third day, (7) resurrection appearances, (8) the Great Commission, and (9) Jesus’ future return as judge of all.
  • “You know”—Peter says that they know of these events.  The fame of Jesus and John the Baptist has evidently come to the attention of Roman authorities in Caesarea (see Paul’s similar statement to Herod Agrippa II in 26:26-27).

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.
  • Despite the actions of evil men, God sovereignly accomplished his saving purpose through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
  • This God-designed reversal is a major theme in Acts.

 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
  • Exalted humans sometimes judged the dead in Greek (Minos and Rhadamanthys) and occasionally Jewish (Abel and Enoch) sources, but in Jewish literature the ultimate judge depicted in these terms is God.

 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
  • A sermon or witness for Christ does not need to be long to be effective.  It should be Spirit-led and should center on Christ, the way and the truth and the life.
  • Two examples of prophets testifying about Jesus and his forgiveness of sins are Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Ezekiel 36:25-26.

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.
  • In the OT, the Spirit normally “came on” people to empower them for God’s work (e.g., Numbers 11:17, 25-26; Judges 6:34).

 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.
  • The prophets had promised the Spirit in the future time of restoration, but only explicitly for God’s own people (e.g., Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 36:27).
  • Cornelius and Peter were very different people.  Cornelius was wealthy, a Gentile, and a military man.  Peter was a Jewish fisherman turned preacher.  But God’s plan included both of them.  In Cornelius’ house that day, a new chapter in Christian history was written as a Jewish Christian leader and a Gentile Christian convert each discovered something significant about the other.  Cornelius needed Peter in order to hear the Good News and know the way of salvation.  Peter needed Cornelius in order to know that Gentiles were included in God’s plan.  You and another believer may also need each other to understand how God works!

 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues[2] and praising God.
  • The presence of the Holy Spirit confirms their salvation and proves that God has initiated and approved the mission to the Gentiles.
  • In Acts “speaking in tongues” is sometimes (but not always) the external evidence of the Spirit’s coming (2:4, 11; 19:6).

Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
  • This may be an implicit “How much more” argument—a form of argument often used by Jesus and other Jewish teachers: if they have received the greater baptism to which the lesser one points (11:16), how much more is it appropriate to grant them the lesser one?

 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
  • Gentiles who converted to Judaism were circumcised (if male) and normally also baptized; here the believers are baptized but not circumcised.
  • Staying with the converts a few days would entail eating with them, which stricter Jews deemed problematic (see 11:2-3).
  • In this case, the people were baptized after they received the Holy Spirit, publicly declaring their allegiance to Christ and identification with the Christian community.
  • Cornelius wanted Peter to stay with him for several days.  He was a new believer and realized his need for teaching and fellowship.  Are you as eager to learn more about Christ?  Recognize your need to be with mature Christians and strive to learn from them.

Peter Explains His Actions
  • When Peter returns to Jerusalem, some of the Jewish Christians challenge him for entering the home of an uncircumcised Gentile.
  • Peter responds by recounting the Cornelius episode in detail, again demonstrating that Gentiles accepted the gospel because of God’s work rather than any human initiative.
  • Repeating the story confirms its importance for Luke.

11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
  • The conservative wing of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who believed that Gentiles should become Jews (be circumcised and keep the OT law) in order to be saved.
  • These Jewish Christians are concerned that Peter ate with the Gentiles, since table-fellowship demonstrated social acceptance and since contact with Gentiles ceremonially defiled Jews.
  • In contrast to many Diaspora Jews, many Judeans had strict rules against eating with Gentiles (cf. 10:23, 28).  
  • Those who have been Jesus’ followers for some time now act like the Pharisees and teachers of the law acted in Luke 15:2.
  • God chose the Jews and taught them his laws so they could bring the message of salvation to all people (see Genesis 12:3; Psalm 22:27; Isaiah 42:4; 49:6; 56:3-7; 60:1-3; Jeremiah 16:19-21; Zechariah 2:11; Malachi 1:11; Romans 15:9-12).
  • When Peter brought the news of Cornelius’ conversion back to Jerusalem, the believers were shocked that Peter had eaten with Gentiles.  After they heard the whole story, the praised God.  Their reactions teach us how to handle disagreements with other Christians.  Before judging the behavior of fellow believers, it is important to hear them out.  The Holy Spirit may have something important to teach us through them.

Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.
  • Ancient writers often included recountings of events they already narrated; including such retellings might emphasize the point for the writer’s audience.

 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
“I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
  • God had promised throughout Scripture that he would reach the nations.  This began with his general promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3; 18:18) and became very specific in Malachi’s statement: “But my name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night” (Malachi 1:11).  But this was an extremely difficult truth for Jews, even Jewish believers, to accept.  The Jewish believers understood how certain prophecies were fulfilled in Christ, but they overlooked other OT teachings.  Too often we are inclined to accept only the parts of God’s Word that appeal to us and support or own agendas.  We must accept all of God’s Word as absolute truth.

“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 
10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house.
  • Peter’s defense for eating with Gentiles was a simple restatement of what had happened.  He brought six witnesses with him to back him up, and then he quoted Jesus’ promise about the coming of the Holy Spirit.  These Gentiles’ lives had been changed, and that was all the evidence Peter and the other believers needed.  Changed lives are an equally powerful evidence today.

 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[3] water, but you will be baptized with[4] the Holy Spirit.’
  • Jesus had also demonstrated clearly that he and his message were for all people.  He had preached in Samaria (John 4:1-42); in the region of the Gerasenes, populated by Greeks (Mark 5:1-20); and he even had reached out to Romans (Luke 7:1-10).  The apostles shouldn’t have been surprised that they were called to do the same.

 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
  • The central theme of Acts, demonstrated throughout this passage, is that the advance of the gospel is the unstoppable work of God.

18 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.”
  • Many Jewish people believed that the small minority of Gentiles who maintained a basic level of decency—no sexual immorality, idolatry or the like—would be saved.
  • More conservative Jewish thinkers, however, demanded conversion, or expected a turning of Gentiles to Israel’s God only in the end time. (The conservative authors of key Qumran documents did not even believe that most Jewish people would be saved.)
  • For the sake of conciseness, Luke may simplify the picture here 9cf. 15:1), which was an accepted practice in ancient histories and biographies, and, for that matter, in ordinary speech.
  • The intellectual questions ended, and the theological discussion stopped with the report that God had given the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles.  This was a turning point for the early church.  They had to accept those whom God had chosen, even if they were Gentiles.  But joy over the conversion of Gentiles was not unanimous.  This continued to be a struggle for some Jewish Christians throughout the first century.

[1] Acts 10:19 One early manuscript two; other manuscripts do not have the number.
[2] Acts 10:46 Or other languages
[3] Acts 11:16 Or in
[4] Acts 11:16 Or in

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