Acts 10:1 – 11:18
Peter’s travels have taken him from Lyyda (the ancient city of Lod, now the area of the international airport of Tel Aviv), to Joppa on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea where he has been staying with Simon the Tanner. As you may know a tanner is one who takes hides of animals and scrapes them to make leather and clothing material for trade. Jewish law declares that anyone touching the carcass of an animal, even a kosher animal would be unclean. This was unavoidable for the trade of Tanner and the fact that Peter stays in the home of this Tanner for a substantial length of time gives us an indication that his scruples of ceremonial cleanliness were at best a little gray. It’s amazing how we can tend to overlook little things around us that we would otherwise be very adamant on. For instance, while Peter (and most Jews of the time) would have kept their distance from Gentiles, certainly not eating with them, he seemed to have little problem getting his room and board from this unclean Jewish home. This may have been an internal struggle for Peter- even leading to God using this strange dream to open his eyes.
Remember that Peter went to the roof of the home in Joppa and laid down for a nap while his host was preparing lunch. While he was sleeping he saw the vision of the picnic blanket being brought down to earth. The blanket was filled with all kinds of unclean animals and he heard a voice saying, “rise Peter; kill and eat”. Peter responded that he would never eat anything unclean. The voice responded back “what God has made clean, do not call common”. This happened three times and the blanket was taken up to heaven.
Have you ever had a dream so intense that when you woke you spent a great deal of time trying to make some kind of sense out of it? Here is Peter on the roof of this house, probably sweating from this dream, completely perplexed as to its meaning when the Spirit of God speaks to him. In my experience when the Spirit speaks you know with certainty that it is God. The Spirit said to Peter, “there are three men searching for you, go with them for I have sent them”. Had Peter not just had this dream about calling common the things God has made clean this journey may never have taken place. Peter goes downstairs to find that he is being sought after by Gentiles and here he does a remarkable thing, he invites the men in to be his guest.
The next day Peter along with some other men of Joppa began the 36 mile journey from Joppa to Cornelius’ home in Caesarea. 36 miles was likely a 2.5-3 day journey. When Peter arrived in the home of Cornelius he began preaching to his household and the Holy Spirit fell on all who listened. The other disciples (who had btw not had the same vision that Peter had had) were amazed that the Holy Spirit had been given to the uncircumcised Gentiles!! Peter sends for some water for baptism, the Gentiles are baptized, and all is well in the world.
EXCEPT, upon learning of his actions Peter is criticized by the believing Jews of the circumcision party in Jerusalem. Sure Peter was a “super apostle”, one of Jesus’ “inner three”, the leader of the church, but he had gone a bit too far with this. He had eaten with the uncircumcised!!! Clearly this was a big deal, and we know this based on the narrative of Pf Paul and Barnabas in Galatians chapter 2. This was a ceremonially unclean, and at the very least a socially unclean thing to do, and Peter was not setting a good example of being a Jew by engaging in this kind of behavior. But Peter goes on to share with these Jerusalem Jews about the vision God had given to him and the movement of the Spirit on his heart, as well as the hearts of the believing Gentiles. His story is corroborated by the others who saw the Holy Spirit fall on the household of Cornelius. Peter’s final conclusion is that the Spirit makes NO DISTINCTION between Jew and Gentile when it comes to salvation and pouring out His Spirit. Peter says, “how can we stand in the way of God”?
While the Circumcision Jews who were believers agreed and accepted this account of Peter, they didn’t like it. They sought to place on the believing Gentiles some of the same rules and regulations that they themselves placed on each other- ritual cleanliness, circumcision, food abstentions… This led to great disagreement among the church and its leaders that was eventually settled in what we know as the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. But the disagreement about regulations didn’t stop there.
I think it’s important to remember that this introduction to the Gospel to Cornelius, this interaction between these Gentiles and Jews in Caesarea, this whole circumstance was completely initiated by God. Notice that it wasn’t just a random guy to whom God speaks, Cornelius is described as a “God-fearing” man who was devout, gave alms to the poor, and prayed to God continually. Regardless of his Gentile race, or his position as centurion of the empire that ruled the Jews, God had heard his prayers and was pleased to reveal His Son to him. God saves without distinction of race, class, or status. Truly this story highlights the principle that we never know when God has already been speaking to the hearts of those to whom we’re called to share His good news. Man looks on the outward appearance of race, class, gender… God looks on the heart.