30 YEARS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
Acts of the Apostles for Today
STUDY 7 – Leaping the Culture Barrier - Acts 10
Cornelius and the Angel
A Roman centurion receives angelic help in his spiritual journey. He asks Peter to come from Joppa - a Gentile asking help from a Jew.
This next section in Acts describes a major advance in the spread of the gospel. Jews with a Hebrew or Greek background (6:1), the 'half-Jews' of Samaria (8:1), an African-Jewish convert (8:27) ... and now a Gentile. It is nothing short of a miracle that faith which grew out of Judaism could be offered to Gentiles so quickly!
Cornelius lived in the port of Caesarea (verse I), the Roman capital of Judea which was about sixty five miles northwest of Jerusalem. It needed a Roman cohort (up to about six hundred men) to protect the harbour area, the city's administrative buildings and the vital water supply, brought by aquaduct into the city. Cornelius was neither a Jew nor a Jewish convert, but he was a kind, generous and deeply religious man (verse 2), and so were his family. During mid-afternoon prayer, in broad daylight, he saw an angel (verse 3) who calls him by name. It is all he can do to stutter out a simple question (a very similar response to Saul - 9:5) in his panic (verse 4). God had noted his kindness to the poor and his spiritual devotion. He is told to send for Peter, who is thirty miles away in Joppa, living by the sea-shore (verse 6).
Many of Cornelius' servants obviously share his spiritual leanings, as do some of his soldiers (verse 7); after sharing his 'angelic' experience, he sends three of them off on the errand (verse 8). The soldiers' presence is for physical protection but also to add a certain 'official' authority as they travelled; and particularly as they tried to obtain accommodation on the way and directions to Simon's house, once in Joppa. It is interesting to note that both of the last two characters in Luke's account of the growth of the church (Dorcas and Cornelius) have two things in common.
Firstly, they are both in groups of people you would never expect to be commended in a Jewish culture - women and Gentiles. It is almost as if the gospel delights in working with the under-dog! Secondly, they are both commended for their work among the poor (9:36, verse 4), an activity which always has the blessing of Jesus because it was part of His ministry (Luke 4:18).
Questions to consider
• What can we learn from the lifestyle of Dorcas & Cornelius (cf James 1:27)
• Prayer plays an important part in the life of Cornelius (verses 2, 3). What state is your prayer life in? How can it be developed?
• Cornelius is in the army (verse 1). Why do some people believe that military service is not right for Christians? How should we relate to those who disagree with us about this?
Peter's Revolutionary Vision
Peter is spoken to by God in a powerful way, changing the scope of his missionary activity. God uses a startling vision.
The messengers make good time from Caesarea, and by noon the next day are approaching the outskirts of Joppa (verse 9a). As this happens, Peter is making his way on to the roof of the house (looking for shade and the cool of the sea-breeze?) to pray (verse 9b). He is extremely hungry and while lunch is being made for him he falls into some kind of trance (verse 10). Peter 'sees' a sheet with animals in it (some of them banned by Jewish law, Lev 11 verses 1-47) which he is told to eat (verses 11-13). God tells him that God has made these animals clean so he can eat them (verse 15). This happens three times (verse 16).
Peter is confused by this vision, but God has the messengers from Cornelius outside to help unravel the mystery. Peter is to leave the roof and respond positively to their request to go to Cornelius (verse 20). He identifies himself and asks what these travellers want (verse 21). The men describe their master and explain about the vision Cornelius has had. They hope Peter will be persuaded by his character and by his good standing among Jews, to come with them. If not, they hope he will be convinced by the story of an angel visiting their master, despite the fact that he is a Gentile (verse 22). As it happens, Peter has already been instructed to do this by an even higher authority than Cornelius (verse 20)! Peter (presumably with Simon's permission!) invites the travellers into the house for food, refreshment and a good night's sleep after their journey up the coast (verse 23).
For Peter, the meaning of the vision is slowly becoming clear. It was not really about what food he could eat or who he could eat it with; it was a vision of far deeper significance. How deep, he could not have realised at this point. All his pre-conceptions about God's plan and purpose with regard to the Gentiles was about to radically change. And this shift in his thinking came not by his human wisdom or initiative nor by some strategic mission plan thought up by the apostles. This is God's work and Luke is at pains to highlight the supernatural aspects of change of heart which opened up the Gentile mission field (verses 3, 11, 19 etc.).
Questions to consider
• Does God still speak through angel visits (verse 3) and 'trances' (verse 10)? Why are these forms of guidance so rare?
• Do you think Christians have traditions and customs (see verses 12-14) that have grown up over the years? What are they? Do they put people off the church?
• Hospitality plays a large part in these verses (9:43, 10:23) How can we develop this gift in the life of our church?
Peter and Cornelius Together
Peter travels to meet Cornelius in Caesarea. The barrier with the Gentiles is being broken down as the two men meet and share what brought them together.
Cornelius is ready for them, and has assembled quite a crowd of his family members and friends (verse 24). He obviously senses that this is an occasion of great significance and wants to share it with those close to him. Peter arrives, and Cornelius bows in deep reverence to him (verse 25 - not simply a mark of respect, more like 'worship'). Peter is not used to this treatment (he may have thought it close to idolatry) and encourages Cornelius to stand up (verse 26 cf. Rev. 19:9,10). The instruction to summon Peter to come may have been supernatural, but Peter is only too aware of his humanness - 'I am only a man' - reverence of this kind belongs only to God.
Going inside Peter finds a large (verse 27) and expectant congregation. 'I shouldn't really be here', he admits, 'but I've had a vision which told me God's assessment of people was more important than mine. I have come in obedience to Him, without raising any of the usual objections a Jew would raise in these circumstances. How can I help you?' (verses 28,29).
This really was a remarkable speech from a first century Jew. It shows how much the vision (verses 11-16) was altering his viewpoint and how he is beginning to grasp its significance.
Cornelius then explains how the invitation to Peter came about (verses 30-32); Peter has heard most of this from the messengers (verses 22, 23) but the repetition no doubt helps fill in some of the details and also ensures that everyone in the large gathering knows the background to the meeting. Cornelius thanks Peter for coming (verse 33a) and expresses the belief that God is present in the room, that He wants to speak, that He wants to speak through Peter and that the assembled crowd is ready to listen (verse 33b).
This speech is almost as remarkable as Peter's! A Roman military leader speaking to a Jew (in front of witnesses) in such a humble way, is amazing. He shows outstanding spiritual insight and openness.
Questions to consider
• Cornelius gets family and friends together to hear the gospel (verse 24) and he isn't even a Christian! How can we communicate the gospel better to our friends and families? (Using our homes?)
• ‘Worshipping' Peter is wrong (verse 25). Is it possible to hero-worship a Christian leader too much? Or a church history character? Or a Christian musician?
• Humility is a key feature in both what Peter says (verses 28, 29) and in what Cornelius says (verses 30-32). Why is humility important? How can it be encouraged and developed?
The Gentiles Believe!
Peter preaches an evangelistic message to the assembled Gentiles. There is an amazing response. A new phase in the life of the early church begins.
Peter opens his sermon with a confession (verse 34), admitting how he has come to realise his mistaken thinking about the Gentiles. 'God has no favourites' is a total climb-down for a Jew, who had probably been brought up to believe that he was part of God’s favourite nation! (The Jews were a 'chosen' people, of course; but this was not meant to imply a special status, simply a special opportunity, that through them the nations of the world could be blessed). God could accept people irrespective of their place of birth or nationality.
The 'meat' of Peter's sermon (verses 36-43) contains many of the same elements he has used before (2:14f, 3:11f). These repeated themes (for example 'Jesus is God's chosen Messiah', 'we are the witness', etc.) form the foundation of apostolic preaching over these early years. They are a presentation of historical facts with an invitation to respond to their implications. That is, if Jesus really did do all these things and He really is alive (and the apostles have seen this with their own eyes, see 1 John 1:1, 2); if He is the unique chosen one, the only 'logical' response is to believe and follow Him.
This sermon of Peter's laid more stress than some of his others on the life and ministry of Jesus (verses 37, 38). Perhaps a Gentile congregation in Caesarea needed more reminding about this than the Jews in Jerusalem.
The ministry of Jesus occurred in a very small geographical area (his trip to Egypt as a baby may have been the farthest he ever went, Matt. 2:13) and it would have been a mistake to assume that some in this Gentile audience knew any more about Jesus than the haziest of details.
Peter's sermon ends (verse 43 cf. 2:38) with the beginnings of an appeal, but he appears to be interrupted by the Holy Spirit! ('While Peter was still speaking' verse 44). The six Jewish Christians can hardly believe their eyes and ears (verse 45); the theory of Peter's sermon ('God has no favourites') is dramatically put into practice - the Holy Spirit is poured out on these Gentiles, just as on them (verse 47). There is no reason to prohibit baptism (into both Christ and the Christian community). Peter stays on for a few days to express commitment to them and no doubt continues the discipleship process (v48).
Questions to consider
• 'Tongues' (verse 46) is a common (though not universal) sign of the work of the Spirit in Acts. Why is this? What emphasis should we give this gift today?
• What could preachers of sermons learn from Peter's preaching content? When is repetition helpful? When is it boring?
• 'God has no favourites' (verse 34), but what about the church? Do you get treated better if you are from the south? White? Intelligent? Male? How do we defeat prejudice?