There are three pivotal events in Acts: 1) Pentecost, 2) Saul’s Conversion, and 3) Cornelius’s Conversion. We come to the third event in our text this morning.
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
Read Acts 10:1-16
The fundamental problem addressed in this passage is the ongoing separation of Jews and Gentiles. We will be talking about the conversion of Cornelius in two weeks, but there is another type of conversion we need to consider, that of Peter. He had serious hangups regarding Gentiles, as almost all of the Jews did.
From childhood a particular worldview had been ingrained in them that looked upon the Gentiles as unclean. The Lord begins to dismantle Peter’s prejudice against Gentiles, tearing down the wall that had kept them separate.
The Kingdom of God expands when the perception of cultural barriers are removed.
Luke utilizes repetition for emphasis. Pentecost is explained three times in Acts. The same can be said of the conversion of Saul and Cornelius.
Gaventa structures this unit (10:1-11:18) in four parts, with each part containing two sections1:
- Two visions (10:1-16)
- Peter’s journey to and welcome by Cornelius (10:17-29)
- Two speeches (10:30-43)
- Confirmation by the Holy Spirit and (10:44-11:18)
First, we will consider Cornelius’s Vision (1-8). Second, we’ll look at Peter’s Vision (9-16).
The Vision of Cornelius (1-8)
Cornelius was a centurion in Caesarea (Acts 10:1). A cohort consisted of six centurions (captain of 100 soldiers). Centurions were typically promoted from the ranks. He would have entered military service at 17 and concluded at the age of 37. He was probably in his 30s. He had about 50/50 chance of survival. These men were “the backbone of the Roman army.”2 The fact that Cornelius was located in Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital, speaks to his rank and value.
Cornelius is described by three character traits (Acts 10:2):
- He was a devout God-fearing man. “Devout”, “God-fearer”, “worshipper of God” has broad usage and appear to be used interchangeably by Luke (cf Acts 13:16, 26; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7).
- It was not uncommon for the wives and children of “God-fearers” to become full proselytes, while the husband refused to be circumcised.
- He led his household spiritually. They no longer worshipped pagan gods, but they had not fully committed to Judaism either. Dennis Johnson writes, “God-fearing was a term applied to Gentiles who adhered to Judaism’s faith in one God and to the Ten Commandments, but who baulked at circumcision and the kosher dietary restrictions of Leviticus.”3
- In some cases we might genuinely classify them as seekers. In other cases they were nothing more than superficially intrigued by God. Cornelius is clearly in the former category.
- He gave alms generously. He was particularly generous to the Jewish nation, which is why they spoke so well of him (Acts 10:22).
- He prayed continually to God. Thus, Darrell Bock creatively remarks that he was a genuine “prayer warrior.”4
As an immediate example of his praying, we find him doing so during the ninth hour (3pm), which would have coincided with the evening service at the temple (Acts 10:3).
For as trained and fierce a soldier he might have been, his vision of an angel initially strikes fear within him (Acts 10:4). But the angel calms his fears, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” The Lord viewed Cornelius’s prayers and his acts of generosity as offerings to Him. They “went up” before God like the sacrificial offerings of Israel in the Old Testament (Exod. 17:14; Lev. 2:2, 9, 16; 5:12).
Cornelius and his household were seeking God’s rescue. This was a man who had great authority and he lived a privileged life. But he was not satisfied. His longing went deeper than the physical benefits he enjoyed.
The angel instructs Cornelius to send men to retrieve Peter (Acts 10:5-6). The angel could have shared the gospel with Cornelius right then and there. Why does he have Cornelius send for Peter? God wanted the Church to witness His grace being poured out upon the Gentiles.
Cornelius calls two of his servants and a devout soldier (Acts 10:7-8). He passes on the angel’s instruction and sends them on their way. This journey would have taken a day if they were traveling by horse, or it would have taken two full days walking. The description of the soldier as “devout” may indicate his own appreciation for Judaism (cf v.2).
What is most convicting about this passage is that the things that characterized Cornelius, an unconverted man, rarely characterize professing Christians today.
Cornelius was a devout God-fearer. He had a daily habit of prayer. He led his family in worship. He had a heart for God without the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But he was hungry for more understanding. What about you?Christians today are considered devout if they attend church once a month.
Cornelius was loved for his generosity. What about you? Do you give freely to others because God has freely given to you? Are you generously giving to the Church? In 2011, professing Christians in America gave 2.3% of their income to the church. During the Great Depression, Christians gave 3.3%. Only 3-5% give 10% or more. Furthermore, 33-50% reported as giving nothing at all to the Church!5
Cornelius faithfully prayed. What about you? Does your prayer have a consistent pattern? We should certainly be in prayer throughout the day, but the people of God have generally had times set aside exclusively for prayer. There is a video titled “40 Million Minutes” explaining the following:
- The average person lives 77 years. That equates to 28,000 days, 670,000 hours, or 40 million minutes.
- The average person spends 40 minutes a day on the phone. That factors out to 20 hours a month, 10 days a year, or 2 years in a lifetime.
- The average person spends 1 hour a day in the bathroom. This amounts to 30 hours a month, 15 days a year, and 3 years in a lifetime.
- The average person spends 3 hours a day watching television. That’s 90 hours a month, 45 days a year, and 9 years in a lifetime.
- The average Christian spends less than 10 minutes a day in prayer. That equates to less than 6 hours a month, 3 days a year, and 7 months in a lifetime.
- The video ends with: “You do the math.”6
We can learn a lot from Cornelius, but his vision pointed him to Peter who was given a vision of his own.
The Vision of Peter (9-16)
Just like Cornelius, Peter’s vision comes during a time of dedicated prayer (Acts 10:9). Interestingly, this is not a normal prayer time. Those regular prayer times were at the 3rd (9am) and 9th hours (3pm). Considering the likelihood that Peter was still habitually praying at those stated hours, it is telling that he is praying at the 6th (12pm) hour as well.
Entering into the full enjoyment of the new covenant served to increase his prayer life. If the account of Cornelius’s prayer life didn’t convict you, maybe Peter’s will. Grace doesn’t make us spiritually lazy, rather it fuels a deeper and ever expanding appreciation of the spiritual disciplines.
A vision of all kinds of animals descend on a blanket in front of Peter (Acts 10:10-16). The vision is repeated three times, something Peter is familiar with (His denial, “Do you love me?”). This vision was shocking! As far back as the time of the Ark, God has made a distinction between the clean and unclean animals (Gen. 6:20; 7:2-3).
The dietary laws set Noah and his family apart from the corruption of the world. These laws would be established in greater detail with Moses. They carried the same purposes for the nation of Israel to be separated from their pagan neighbors (Lev. 11; 18:24-28; Deut. 14:3-21). Dietary laws were a means God used to protect his chosen people and ensure that they remained set apart.
Peter is emphatic in his negative response (Acts 10:14). “By no means” or “may it never be” reflect an ingrained disgust for the idea of eating what he had always considered forbidden. There is a close parallel in Ezekiel 4:10-17 where God instructs the prophet to bake bread upon human dung. Ezekiel responds, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I have never defiled myself. From my youth up till now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has tainted meat come into my mouth.”
Guy Waters comments:
“Because the distinction between clean and unclean animals has been divinely abolished, Peter must no longer ‘call unclean’ animals that formerly had been unclean. Jesus had signaled that this abrogation of the distinction of foods was coming (Mark 7:19), but now, after the resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost, that abrogation had arrived.”7
On the other hand, the nations were not left out of the picture entirely. From the very beginning, God intended to bless the nations. He would specifically bless Abraham so that he might be a blessing to the nations. So while, the dietary laws served to create a division, it was not meant to create a sense of favoritism and ethnocentrism. They were not to despise their neighbors. On the contrary, they were to bless them, pray for them, and even show hospitality to them.
The Old Testament concept of separation from the world has parallel in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 1:14-19 we read:
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”
Even though many of the Mosaic laws have been fulfilled in Christ, there is still an expectation that followers of Christ will live in a way that sets us apart from the moral corruption that surrounds us in this world.
If you have been a Christian for any length of time you realize the dilemma this creates. We are called to be witnesses to the world, while at the same time we are called to be set apart from the world. We are called to have an influence without being influenced.
The visions of Cornelius and Peter ultimately point to the single vision of God.
Cornelius’s vision is repeated four times (narrator 10:3-7; Cornelius’s servant 10:22; Cornelius himself 10:30-32; Peter 11:13-14). Peter’s vision is repeated three times (10:16; 11:10; 15:7-8). Luke’s emphasis upon this event is undeniable.
Of course, as we will see later on, the primary concern of the vision is not food, but people (Acts 10:28). And yet, there is a reason the vision involves food. It was symbolic of fellowship and friendship. ‘It would be a short step from recognizing that Gentile food was clean to realizing that Gentiles themselves were clean also’ (I. H. Marshall, Acts, 186; see 10:28).
Derek Thomas writes,
“Peter’s mind was still deeply prejudiced by years of resentment and disgust at the ceremonial uncleanness of uncircumcised Gentiles. Showing respect to Cornelius was one thing; eating with him in his home was unthinkable.”8
If it is true that, The Kingdom of God expands when the perception of cultural barriers are removed, how are we promoting their removal in our own lives?
The vision of God that Luke is unfolding for us in this passage is that the Church was designed for Jews and Gentiles to worship together. There is no more separation for the sake of maintaining ceremonial purity.
Jesus Christ has fulfilled the law for all who place their faith in him alone. Salvation is freely offered to people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. In God’s eyes, every barrier has been removed.
- Darrell Bock, Acts, ?. ↩︎
- Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 50. ↩︎
- Dennis Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 124. ↩︎
- Darrell Bock, Acts, 386. ↩︎
- http://churchm.ag/giving-statistics-every-church-should-know/ ↩︎
- https://vimeo.com/9095194 ↩︎
- Guy Waters, Acts, 254. ↩︎
- Derek Thomas, Acts, 295. ↩︎