Luke continues to focus on Peter’s ministry and in this text it becomes clear why. Peter – the apostle who gave the first public proclamation of the gospel at Pentecost and who bestowed the Holy Spirit on the Samaritans – becomes the first to take the gospel to the gentiles. Jesus clearly told the apostles to take the gospel to the remotest part of the earth (1:8), but to this point the Jewish apostles have honored their culture’s prohibitions against interacting with non-Jews. Peter breaks down that wall and in so doing opens the whole world to the good news and sets the stage for Paul’s ministry.
While Peter stays in Joppa with Simon the tanner (9:43), the text tells us about a man living 31 miles to the north in Caesarea (on the coast like Joppa). His name is Cornelius and he is a Roman centurion who is in the Italian cohort (a centurion is over roughly 100 men – a “century” – and a “cohort” is made up of six centuries – ten cohorts make up a “legion”).
Cornelius is a devout man who fears God – he and all his household – and gives many alms and prays continually. Because of his position he is likely affluent so his alms may be significant and felt in the surrounding community (in this he is similar to Tabitha of Joppa – 9:36). He prays continually and is devout but he is not a Jew. He believes in the God of the Jews but has not been circumcised and likely does not abide by the ceremonial and dietary laws. Cornelius has perhaps come to his belief because of being stationed in Palestine and being exposed to the Jews (Caesarea is the seat of Roman government in Judea).
Note what characteristics Luke highlights to show Cornelius’ devotion – generosity and continual prayer. Cornelius joins the list of people or groups Luke has described as godly by reporting on their generosity. The church in Jerusalem, Barnabas, Tabitha, and now Cornelius all share this godly trait. To this Cornelius adds continual prayer. Cornelius is not a believer but his life provides a lesson for believers. Devotion shows itself. The one devoted to God shows it by his works and his desire for God. No one earns his way into God’s presence by good works, but the one who is already there should be characterized by them and should desire God above all else.
An angel appears to Cornelius as he prays around 3:00 PM (the traditional hour of prayer – 3:1) and tells him that God has noticed his prayers and alms – they have ascended as a memorial before God. This could simply mean that God has noticed Cornelius’ devotion and generosity and has decided to bless him by sending the gospel. Or it could mean that even though he is devout Cornelius realizes there is something more than devotion needed to be accepted by God and has been praying accordingly. If that is the case, his prayers are about to be answered.
Regardless of which is correct, the angel instructs Cornelius to send for Peter who is staying in Joppa. As soon as the vision is over, Cornelius does as he was instructed and sends two servants and a devout soldier to Joppa. Cornelius is very accustomed to receiving and giving orders – he responds very naturally to the angel’s direction.
The next day at noon – as the three men from Cornelius are approaching Joppa (which means they have covered the 31 miles fairly rapidly; they left after 3:00 PM yesterday) – Peter goes up on the roof of Simon’s house to pray (he does not wait for the hour of prayer at 3:00). As he prays he becomes hungry and asks for food to be prepared (Simon is apparently well off – the three men from Cornelius will stop at an outer gate – and likely has people who prepare the food Peter asks for). As he waits for the food he falls into a trance and sees a vision of his own (interesting that he sees this vision while he is hungry). In the vision something like a sheet is lowered by its four corners from the sky, and in the sheet are all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. The animals are all unclean – not permissible to eat under the Mosaic Law. As he sees the sheet and the animals Peter hears a voice saying, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!”
Peter is horrified by the command. He instantly replies to the voice (just a voice – no visible person speaks to him) and says, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Peter was with Jesus when He healed on the Sabbath and allowed the disciples to glean and said that the Sabbath is made for man and not vice versa. He heard Jesus repeatedly condemn the Pharisees for their hypocrisy in the midst of their devotion to the Law. He also heard Jesus say that nothing that goes into a man defiles him. He currently stays at the house of a tanner who is perpetually unclean because of his constant contact with dead animals. Peter is not a legalist. However, what the voice asks him to do is to violate what he has been taught and practiced his whole life. Dietary laws are not just made-up rules from the religious leaders – they go to the heart of the Mosaic Law and its focus on Israel as the set-apart nation of God.
The voice answers Peter’s objection – “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” The rules have changed. God does not tell Peter that he is wrong about what the Law commands. What He says is that the dietary laws are no longer valid (see also Mk 7:14-19). It is not said here, but what this means is that after Jesus Israel no longer needs to be set apart. Jesus has paid the price for all people and the ceremonial laws that distinguished Israel are no longer necessary.
The vision is repeated three times just so Peter does not have any doubts as to what he sees. If the vision would have come only once he may have thought he mistook its message (especially since it is so outrageous). Seeing it three times ensures he clearly hears the instruction (we can assume that Peter only objects the first time – it would be especially hard-headed to object each time the vision comes).
As Peter stays on the roof trying to understand what he has just seen the three men from Cornelius approach the gate (the Holy Spirit clearly is in charge of the timing throughout this story) and ask for Peter. At the same time the Spirit instructs Peter that the men are here and that he is to go with them. Peter goes down to them and introduces himself and asks why they have come (the voice and the Spirit have not told Peter exactly what is going on – just that he is no longer to consider unclean things unclean and that he should go with these men who are looking for him).
The men tell Peter about the vision their master had. They describe Cornelius as righteous and God-fearing and well respected by the entire nation of the Jews. They likely realize how their request must sound to Peter and that a Jew would never typically come with them to their house (Peter later assumes they know the Jewish teaching on fraternization with gentiles – 28), so they take pains to defend their master and to make Peter as comfortable as possible with returning with them. They also make sure that Peter knows Cornelius was commanded to send for him by a holy angel.
Peter accepts their message – as instructed by the Spirit – and invites them in to stay for the night (it is too late to start the journey back to Caesarea and the men are probably worn out from their quick trip to Joppa). This in itself is an extraordinary step. Not only does a Jew never enter the house of a gentile, he certainly never allows a gentile to enter his – much less spend the night (and, we can assume, eat together). [Interesting that Peter has the freedom to invite them into Simon’s house. Simon obviously defers to Peter and his position. It also could be that Simon – as an unclean tanner – is not too concerned with ceremonial purity and is used to interacting with gentiles in the course of his trade.] Peter has already taken the first step toward breaking down the wall with the gentiles.
The next day Peter – along with six Jewish believers from Joppa (11:12) – accompany the men from Cornelius back to Caesarea. They enter Cornelius’ house and Cornelius instantly falls at Peter’s feet and worships him. This awkward and inappropriate behavior seems odd from a man who is a devout God-fearer, but it makes some sense from Cornelius’ standpoint. He was instructed very clearly by an angel to send for this man. In Cornelius’ view he must be someone very special and perhaps divine for this kind of message to precede him. He does not know who Peter is but he knows he has angels serving as his messengers. People who have their own angels get worshiped.
Peter very quickly raises Cornelius up and tells him, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” Peter’s head must be swimming. He has just taken a huge step by entering the house of a gentile for the first time in his life and the first thing that happens is the master of the house – who happens to be a Roman centurion wielding enormous authority – falls down at his feet and worships him. If not for the vision and the Spirit’s power he likely would turn around right now and run back to Joppa.
Peter comes further into the house and finds a large crowd waiting for him. Cornelius has called his relatives (Roman military men are not allowed to marry – this may refer to extended family in the area) and close friends together to hear Peter (24). Peter acknowledges that they know a Jew is not allowed to come into a gentile’s house (it is not technically against the Law – it is more a cultural taboo that has grown out of the Law). However, God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. Peter realizes how he is to interpret the vision – it is not just food that is no longer unclean. People who were considered untouchable are now included in what God has cleansed (if he can eat all food he can eat with all people as there is no reason to fear becoming unclean by exposure to their food).
Interestingly, Peter still does not know why they have called for him or what exactly is going on. He is faced with a room full of people that he does not know and that yesterday he would not have even spoken to, and they are all looking at him expectantly as if he should know what the purpose of the visit is. He not only is way outside of his comfort zone, he is completely ignorant about what he is supposed to do. Strange house, strange people, everything about the setting going against everything he has ever known, and now a large group looking at him and waiting for him to say or do something. After stating that he has come because God told him to, Peter says, “And so I ask for what reason you have sent for me.”
Cornelius explains the vision he had telling him to send for Peter. He ends by saying, “Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” This gives Peter the information he needs to know what to do. Cornelius was instructed by God to send for him and these people want to know the message that has been commanded by the Lord. That can mean only one thing – they need to hear the gospel (this situation somewhat illustrates Peter’s later words about always being ready to give an account for the hope that is in you – I Pet 3:15).
Peter begins with an admission of what he has learned in this process. “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him.” God does not discriminate with His good news. All people in every nation are welcome to accept the gospel. And no one must first become a Jew to become a believer. Jesus died for all races of people everywhere.
No one is outside of the gospel. No race of people is to be dismissed. No group is to be considered unworthy or beyond the gospel’s scope – not even those who belong to a religion that despises Christians. Everyone is entitled to hear the gospel and discrimination and racism have no part in it. God’s messengers must be willing to spread His good news at any time under any circumstances and to any people.
Peter goes on to tell them about Jesus’ life and ministry. He tells them of His death and resurrection and finishes by saying, “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone (EVERYONE!) who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” He preaches the gospel to them just as he has on innumerable occasions up to this point. Though the audience is different from any audience he has spoken to before, the message is the same. Christ came and died and rose again and all who believe on Him are forgiven and saved.
As Peter reaches the end of his presentation the Spirit falls on the people listening. The Jews who have accompanied Peter are amazed because they visibly see evidence of the Spirit’s presence in these gentiles. They speak in tongues and exalt God. There is no doubt they have the Spirit and have all the privileges of belief – just like the converted Jews. The barrier is officially down – the gospel is for all people and these six men and Peter now know it beyond any doubt.
Peter observes the Spirit’s work and says, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And with that he orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. They have heard the gospel just as we did. They have believed just as we did. They have received the Spirit just as we did. They have received baptism just as we did. And they are fully believers just as we are. There is officially no longer Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).
As a final sign of how much things have changed, the new believers ask Peter to stay with them for a few days – and he does. Peter the Jew – presumably along with the six Jewish men who are with him – stay in the houses of the gentiles for days. They stay in the same houses and eat together as if there is nothing different between them. They are united in the gospel and are brothers and sisters in Christ instead of sanctified Jews and pagan gentiles.
The gospel is the ultimate unifying message. Every person in every country on every continent on the earth shares the same need – he is dead in his sins and needs a Savior. That need for the gospel transcends all differences. We may speak different languages, have different colored skin, practice different customs, live in different socio-economic conditions, wear different clothes or eat different foods – but we all need the gospel. That is why racism has no part in the Christian’s life. As believers we are all united by having been hopelessly lost and gloriously redeemed, and that bond is stronger than any natural difference between us.
To update Paul’s words in Galatians for the 21st century: “There is neither white nor black, there is neither American nor foreigner, there is neither liberal nor conservative, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”