Passage: Acts 10:1–8
Today we get to chapter ten in Acts which is a climactic turn of events as the gospel finally goes to the gentiles. We know from chapter one that this is what Luke has been waiting to tell us. But we know from Genesis that this is what God has been waiting to show us. We know that Abraham was set apart and from his ancestors would come one (Jesus) who would not just bless Israel, but all the nations of the earth. This is the moment that the blessing breaks through from Israel and begins its way to all nations. In this passage we have Cornelius, the first gentile convert to Christianity.
I want to break this chapter up into two parts. I really want to tell two stories. It’s easy to see the story of Cornelius (and we will look more at that next week). But the story behind the story is actually Peter. One of my favorite Marvel characters is Dr. Strange. If you don’t know the story, Dr. Strange is a world-renowned surgeon who gets in a terrible accident which crushes his hands. After spending most of his money on his medical recovery (which didn’t work), he hears about someone in the far East who can fix the unfixable and he spends his last bit of money to go east.
All he believes in is the known scientific world so when he arrives and sees that they are talking about a mystical power that goes beyond the known world, he drops to his knees thinking how foolish he has been to come all this way. Then the character called the Ancient One shows him this power and he is forever changed. Everything about him begins to change. It’s slow. He doesn’t understand much, but he’s committed to figuring it out. It’s a slow process in the beginning, but you can tell that he is becoming someone new. He sees the whole world in a new way.
This picture of Dr. Strange is how I view Peter here. He’s seen Jesus. He had his moment of denial. Had thought he had given three years of his life for nothing. But now, we see the lights going on and it is so easily missed if we don’t know what to look for. In this passage, Peter is beginning to put all the dots together. Peter, as the leader of the Christian church at this time, has a question before him so important that it would literally impact and reshape the whole of Christianity.
So, I want to walk through the first 35 verses of this chapter and see 1) Peter’s question, 2) Peter’s process, and 3) Peter’s breakthrough.
- Peter’s Question 1-8
Peter’s question was this: Does a gentile convert first have to become Jewish? There had been many gentile converts before. Think about Ruth or Rahab. Beautiful stories of pagan women embracing the God of the Bible with genuine faith...BUT....they became fully Jewish. That has always been the precedent until this moment in history. Now, enter Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian cohort in the Roman Army.
A centurion was a Roman mid-level officer who oversaw about 100 soldiers. This group of soldiers was over at Caesarea which was down by the sea. Jerusalem sits on a hill which makes it a colder place. Something in me feels like it’s just appropriate that the Italians would be hanging out in warmer weather by the sea. But, I don’t want to give you the impression that they aren’t important soldiers because they are in a great port city on the Mediterranean.
This was a very important station. It was a garrison town. They were protecting one of the most important ports in the Roman Empire because most of the grain and imports from Egypt would have come through here. We have every reason to believe that this man, Cornelius, is a capable soldier entrusted with an important job.
Lastly, we see that Cornelius was a God fearer. We know from the passage that he gave generously and prayed often. He at least held the Jewish faith in high regard. He might have really valued the Jewish ethics. He might have connected to the idea of one God instead of a pantheon of pagan gods. He may have even visited with rabbis or prayed at the synagogue. But, he had not been circumcised and he could not participate in temple sacrifices because he was not Jewish.
Then, Cornelius sees a vision. Luke records that About the ninth hour of the day1 zhe saw clearly in a vision aan angel of God come in and say to him,“Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms bhave ascended cas a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging dwith one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. - Acts 10:3-8
The greatest question the early church has to answer in the whole book of Acts is happening now. Would Cornelius have to become a Jew before becoming a Christian? If you answer this question wrong, the whole of the gospel of Jesus Christ falls apart. I can’t overstate what a big decision is being thrust on Peter. But, luckily for Peter and luckily for us, God had been working in Peter’s life to prepare him for this moment.
- Peter’s process 9-23
The first clue Luke gives us that Peter has already begun to rethink things is the fact that he was staying with a tanner. A tanner took hides from dead animals and made these hides suitable for other things like rugs or clothes. A tanner handled unclean dead animals which would have made him unclean as well. No Jew would have stayed in the house of a tanner. Why would Peter be compromising such an important part of the Jewish faith? Maybe because he had already started to become less Jewish.
I have to think that Samaria would have been a crucial crossroads for Peter. Remember in chapter eight, Philip, thrust from Jerusalem amidst increased persecution, went down to Samaria and preached the gospel and they believed. These people were half Jewish. They had intermarried with their Babylonian captors generations ago and created a new hybrid form of worship. They were despised by the Jews. They were called things like traitors and half breeds. Yet, they believed.
Everyone was so surprised by all the things they were seeing that the apostles sent Peter and John to go check it out. Then, Peter saw something that undoubtedly began his transition. He saw the Holy Spirit given to these people. Peter saw signs and wonders from the Holy Spirit to confirm what he was seeing. But, remember, because they were half Jewish, the question that Peter will face with Cornelius was not thrust upon them. Still, I have no doubt in my mind that this experience in Acts 8 led him to be ok staying with this tanner.
But, I think Peter still had lots of questions. Luke tells us that food was being cooked in the tanner’s house which was almost certainly unclean. Peter was on the roof of the house, which was just a flat roof where you could hang out. Peter was hungry and he wanted some but he didn’t know what to do. I think he had questions like, “Ok, God. I see you are letting the half Jews in, but I have so many questions. Should I eat his food?” I actually don’t think Peter had fully answered that question at this point. His mind was confused, his conscience might have even been strained. And it is in this context that God gives him a vision as well.
Luke makes sure that we see that as he is praying on the roof, the men sent from Cornelius are on their way. No coincidences here. As Peter was praying, he fell into a trance and we read this: Peter saw ithe heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means,Lord; jfor I have never eaten anything that is kcommon or lunclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, m“What God has made clean, do not call common.”16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. Acts 10:11-16
This is the answer! There is no more clean and unclean! Jesus in Mark 7 says that what goes inside us does not make us unclean, but what comes out of us. The whole system of clean and unclean existed to show us that we are all unclean and need the holiness of God. Jesus has come and by his once and for all sacrifice on the cross, we are now made clean and we are given God’s righteousness. His Spirit comes inside us to make us clean. The whole concept of clean and unclean was one of many categories God gave his people to better understand and point to Jesus. Peter can now go and kill and eat whatever he wants!
And God bless Peter, the vision happens three times and Luke says he is still confused. And at that very moment, the Italian cohort shows up at Peter’s door, they tell him what has happened to Cornelius, and they invite Peter to come tell him whatever God wanted him to hear. And this is where we see the fourth and final part of Peter’s process. He invites them in, presumably to dine.
No good Jew would have ever allowed these Italian Roman pagan soldiers in their house, much less to eat together. By inviting them in, Luke is showing us that Peter had one more major development in his process. Peter invites them in and the next day, Peter departs with these men on a two day journey for Caesarea. And I believe that it is on this journey that Peter came to his breakthrough.
- Peter’s breakthrough 24-35
When they arrive, Cornelius, in front of a large crowd, bows down to worship Peter, which Peter stops immediately saying, “I’m just a man like you.” And beginning in verse 28, we see the breakthrough: 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew zto associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but aGod has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” - Acts 10:28, 29
Cornelius recounts again to Peter what he had been told and Peter says, “Truly I understand that fGod gshows no partiality, 35 but fin every nation anyone who fears him and hdoes what is right is acceptable to him. - Acts 10:34, 35
Peter’s breakthrough is that gentiles do not have to become Jewish before they become Christian. The food laws that created a boundary between Israel and the nations has now been broken down. This is the moment the gospel goes to the nations and it would never have happened without Peter answering this hugely important question.
It’s funny that today we celebrate Luther’s breakthrough in 1517 that would lead to the whole protestant reformation. He rightly saw that we are justified by faith in Jesus alone and not by our works and this changed the whole course of the church and Western history. The weight of Luther’s breakthrough was momentous, but it wasn’t as momentous as Peter’s in this passage. Peter’s breakthrough would change everything! And in Acts 15 we will see the whole church comes together in Jerusalem to solidify Peter’s breakthrough.
We have to understand this issue of partiality to understand why this is so big. Think about this, if Cornelius would have had to become a Jew before becoming a Christian, God would be favoring the Jewish nation above all others going forward. In the New Covenant, God favors no nationality. This is why Cornelius does not have to take on Jewish customs or Jewish culture to be a Christian. So, the way Christians have applied this for two thousand years is to ask, are we in some way communicating a preferential God to the world?
There are kind of two categories that we need to consider. First, what are things we wrongly see as unclean and separate over. Historically, in our context, we separated over race. Angela and I have, now deceased, family members who told us that it was wrong for blacks and whites to marry. I was told that the Bible doesn’t allow it. I know a pastor who is still employed by the Southern Baptist Convention who said for a white person to marry a black person is about the most selfish thing you can do. They are importing Southern American racism into their religion, calling something that is clean unclean, and separating over it.
We also see this happening in politics. Voting is an incredible privilege and it is good and right to have passionate values about the future of our country. I certainly do. Even so, how we vote in our modern 21st century democratic context can be a secondary issue. We can agree that the unborn need to be protected, racism is bad, and refugees should be taken care of (those are primary issues), but still disagree on how we do that. The how is secondary. We should be able to disagree on the how and move forward together in the same church worshiping the one true God.
We have seen particular styles of education separate us. I know a prominent evangelical figure who would put members of his church under church discipline if they sent their kids to public school. That’s a horrible misuse of church discipline and adding to the word of God. But it goes the other way too. I’ve seen Christians say if you don’t go to public school, you aren’t missional and separate over that!
The second category we have to be aware of is confusing our cultural values with our Christianity. I’m not even saying these cultural values are bad, but we have to know our culture well enough to be able to distinguish between the cultural and the Christian. One of our core values is ‘contextualizing our mission.’ A part of doing that well is being able to distinguish clearly between the cultural and the Christian.
Here are a few examples. When missionaries went to South America and Hawaii, one of the things they would do upon baptism is require them to wear American or European clothes. The value was modesty, not a bad value. But instead of allowing that culture to apply the biblical value of modesty, they applied the American and European version of it.
Here’s another example. I don’t think I’ve ever taken communion in another country where grape juice was used instead of wine. I’m sure there are some examples out there, but what we do here is uniquely American. Now, the biblical value is sober-minded and I appreciate that, but there are churches that would split over this issue. And no, I’m not trying to push for wine at communion, I just want us to see that this is a cultural expression and not a biblical mandate.
We have all kinds of cultural values that we can turn into Christian values. We have done this with piercings, tattoos, music, styles of dating, schooling, the way we use our words, even the length of our hair. Although I will let you know that I have a haircut scheduled for Tuesday. These are all cultural values. That doesn’t make them bad values, it just makes them secondary issues that we should feel free to disagree on as we live life together.
I think the best question to ask yourself is this. Do I think that brother or sister is a less faithful Christian because they do [fill in the blank]. Then ask yourself if that thing is clearly mandated by scripture or if it is a secondary cultural value. It may well be a primary issue that does result in separation of fellowship, but could also just be what’s best for you, but not necessarily what’s best for every single Christian. This is one of the reasons it’s so good to visit other cultures and worship with them. We get to see different expressions of Christianity and worship that challenge our cultural values. Lord willing, we will have an opportunity this summer to do a trip like the one we did to Cuba in early 2020. It won’t be Cuba because of the uncertainties there, but a very similar culture.
What I really don’t want is any of us, including myself, to think that we have this figured out. I don’t believe anyone in this room has this figured out. Do you know why? Because Peter didn’t even have it figured out. Years and years after the events in our passage, Peter goes to visit Paul in Galatia and this is how Paul records it in Galatians 2: 11 But ewhen Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him fto his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, ghe was eating with the Gentiles;but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing hthe circumcisionparty.1 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that evenBarnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their iconduct was not in step with jthe truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas kbefore them all, “If you, though a Jew, llive like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” - Gal. 2:11-14
We will always be in process. There is a pastor I really appreciate named Ray Ortlund. His son wrote Gentle and Lowly, the book we went through as a church earlier this year. Ray distinguishes between gospel doctrine and gospel culture. A church can acquire gospel doctrine in five minutes. Just adopt a good confession. Done. Gospel doctrine. But gospel culture is so much harder to find. In his book simply titled Gospel, Ray writes. Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace. When the doctrine is clear and the culture is beautiful, that church will be powerful. But there are no shortcuts to getting there. Without the doctrine, the culture will be weak. Without the culture, the doctrine will seem pointless (21).
We can undo our doctrine with our culture. But when we have both gospel doctrine and gospel culture, the result is beautiful. And just think about what an apologetic it would be to a polarized world if we could really manifest both. This is precisely Peter’s breakthrough. Let’s pray.