When God led Israel out of Egypt and was about to take them into the promised land of Canaan, He took steps to insure their separateness, their distinctness as His people, and as that race through whom Messiah would come. He gave them the Mosaic Covenant, and as a part of this covenant, He made distinctions between "clean" and "unclean" things which the Israelites were to carefully observe. This covered such things as washings, types of food eaten, contact with dead things, partaking of blood, contact with skin diseases, contact with those who were "unclean," and so on.
Because of these regulations that all orthodox Jews followed, some to a greater extent than others, they prided themselves in abstaining from anything "unclean." This led to the conclusion that the Gentiles themselves were unclean, because they ate what the Israelites didn't. This provided them with the opportunity not only to look down on the Gentiles, but to avoid contact with them--all in the name of holiness.
The dirt from a Gentile country was also considered unclean. If anyone happened to track some Gentile dirt into Israel, the dirt remained defiled--it never mingled with Israel's soil; it just continually defiled the dirt of Israel. Consequently, whenever travelers left a Gentile country, they would always shake the dust off their feet, so they wouldn't bring Gentile pollution into Israel.
Because the Jews viewed Gentiles as unclean, that had great ramifications. For example: Milk that was drawn from a cow by Gentile hands was not allowed to be consumed by Jews. Bread and oil prepared by a Gentile could be sold to a stranger, but could never be used by a Jew. No Jew would ever eat with a Gentile. If a Gentile was ever invited to a Jewish house, he couldn't be left in the room lest he defile all the food in the room. If cooking utensils were bought from a Gentile, they had to be purified by fire and water.
For centuries the Jews had seen themselves as separated from the Gentiles by the question of religious "cleanness" and "uncleanness." The attitude of the Jews toward the Gentiles was far from a merely condescending mentality. There was a deep rift between Jews and Gentiles. It was one that the Gospel would bridge, but not until after the lessons of our text were learned and applied.
We need to understand this riff between the Jew and Gentile in order for us to appreciate the huge step that is about to be described in this chapter. God was bringing about a total change in the way that Christian Jews would see Gentiles.
In our last study we saw Peter on an apostolic visit to the followers of Jesus outside Jerusalem. At Lydda, he had cured Aeneas, who had been afflicted with palsy for eight years; and at Joppa, he had raised Dorcas, or Tabitha, from the dead. This resulted in many coming to faith in Jesus Christ. We ended last time with Peter in Joppa at Simon the tanner's house:
And it came about that he stayed many days in Joppa with a certain tanner, Simon. (Acts 9:43 NASB)
Peter was staying at Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. It was the city where the prophet, Jonah, had fled to board a ship to Tarshish. He was trying to run from the Lord's command to go and preach at Ninevah, the capital city of Israel's arch-enemy, Assyria.
The fact that Peter willingly lodged with a tanner probably demonstrated the more casual approach to uncleanness followed by Galileans. A Judaean would have been much more wary of doing so.
Now there was a certain man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, (Acts 10:1 NASB)
About 30 miles north of Joppa and some 65 miles northwest of Jerusalem was the Roman provincial capital, Caesarea, a mainly Gentile city where the governor lived. Under his authority were some 3,000 troops, including the Italian cohort. Serving with this unit was Cornelius, a centurion who commanded 100 soldiers. The Jews despised the Roman occupation of Palestine; they hoped that Messiah would come and deliver them from the Roman oppression.
Behind the scenes, God is orchestrating the events to bring Peter and Cornelius together in a way that shocked both of them by breaking down the wall of prejudice between them:
Now there was a certain man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, 2 a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually. (Acts 10:1-2 NASB)
The first thing we learn about Cornelius is that he is an officer in the Roman Army. This is something that would have made him all the more hated by any patriotic Jew.
Cornelius is "a devout man"--this is from the Greek word eusebes, which means: "reverent, pious, godly." Luke also tells us that Cornelius "feared God." This points to that class of monotheistic Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel as the one God and respected the Old Covenant and the moral teaching of the Jews, attended synagogue, observed the Sabbath, and practiced the main requirements of Jewish piety. Their contributions to the synagogue were gratefully accepted, and they were welcome to participate to some extent in synagogue worship, but they were in no way looked on as Jews. In order for that to happen, they had to become proselytes, which would include circumcision.
The Jews called full Gentile proselytes who had undergone circumcision, "Proselytes of righteousness." They referred to Gentiles who adhered to Judaism to a lesser extent without submitting to circumcision, "Proselytes of the gate."
"One who feared God with all his household"--Cornelius not only believed in the God of Israel, but he taught his faith to all his household. This would include family members, servants, and slaves.
"And gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually"-- it is significant that his love and reverence was not so much for the religious system of Judaism, but a love and devotion to Yahweh. So many of the Jews were in love with a religious system, but had abandoned a love for God.
The angel says in verse 4, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God." In contrast to the Jews, whose ceremonial acts of worship were an offense to God, the deeds of Cornelius went up to God as "a memorial." To be more precise, they were acts of worship. He was a man who obviously had a real relationship with God.
Cornelius was not a Christian--he did not know Jesus Christ. He did not belong to the body of Christ. He was an Old Covenant believer. Until he heard the Gospel from Peter, he did not have enough information to be saved. What he still needed was the good news of the coming of the Christ and of His sacrificial death and resurrection for the remission of men's sins. So to get this information, God would send him to get Peter.
About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in to him, and said to him, "Cornelius!" 4 And fixing his gaze upon him and being much alarmed, he said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. (Acts 10:3-4 NASB)
We are not told specifically that Cornelius was praying, but it was the ninth hour (3:00 in the afternoon). This was a customary time of prayer for Jews. Also, as Cornelius relates the incident to Peter in Acts 10:30, he specifically says he was praying ("At the ninth hour I prayed in my house"). So while Cornelius is praying, he has a vision of an angel, which alarmed him. I can understand that. I assume that Cornelius was not used to having visions and seeing angels.
The Greek word translated here as "vision" is horama, which means: "something gazed at, i.e. a spectacle (especially supernatural), a sight divinely granted." It was so vivid that Cornelius would later say, "a man stood before me in shining garments." (Acts 10:30). In broad daylight, Cornelius, wide awake, sees clearly a vision in which an angel approaches him and addresses him by name:
"And now dispatch some men to Joppa, and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; 6 he is staying with a certain tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea." (Acts 10:5-6 NASB)
In the case of the eunuch, an angel appeared to the preacher and sent him to the inquirer. In this case, the angel appears to the inquirer and tells him to send for the preacher. In both cases, the only work of the angel was to bring the two men together, face to face.
Even when Saul was knocked to the ground by a voice from heaven, he was told of Ananias, a man in Damascus who would give him knowledge of salvation. When God wants someone to hear the Gospel, He doesn't communicate it Himself, and He doesn't use angels, He only and always uses people. It's our responsibility to share the Gospel with others.
And when the angel who was speaking to him had departed, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were in constant attendance upon him, 8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. (Acts 10:7-8 NASB)
Once the angel had departed, Cornelius called two of his closest servants to him and sent them, along with a God-fearing soldier who had been with him a long time and had accompanied him on his various assignments, to Joppa, having explained everything to them. Note again the emphasis on "devout," a word which always connects the person to Judaism.
What we see here in these verses is that God singled out Cornelius for salvation. There were many Gentiles who could have been saved and become the first Gentile to officially be introduced into the Church, but God chose Cornelius. Why? Why did God choose Cornelius? This question gets a variety of answers.
Steadman writes: "What about the man who has never heard of Jesus Christ? What about the man who lives up to the light he has, and is faithful to what he knows, but has never heard of Jesus Christ? What happens to him?" Here is a story of what happens to a man like that. When he is obedient to the light that he has, God will take it upon Himself to give him more light and to lead him to the place where he can come to know Jesus Christ."
According to Steadman, God chose Cornelius because he was obedient to the light he had. Is God's choice based upon our actions?
just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love (Ephesians 1:4 NASB)
According to Paul, God chose "before the foundation of the world." Before there even was a world, long before we ever existed, God chose us.
Another commentator writes: "God responds to the willing, open heart. Election never violates volition; they always go together." God responds to our willing open heart? We are dead, blind, and deaf according to the Scriptures. Another commentator writes: "This text makes a great example of how God responds to those who are seeking after Him."
It would be against Scripture to conclude that Cornelius was a basically good man who was naturally inclined to seek after God, and that because Cornelius sought God, God responded by revealing Himself. The Bible is clear that there are none who seek after God:
as it is written, "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; 11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; (Romans 3:10-11 NASB)
Any time you find a person like Cornelius who seeks after God, you can know that God is first seeking the person:
"All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. (John 6:37 NASB)
The ones who come to God are those who the Father has given to the Son:
"No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44 NASB)
The only reason that Cornelius was seeking God was because God had drawn him. Cornelius' salvation is all of God. God sent an angel to tell him to send for Peter.
And on the next day, as they were on their way, and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. (Acts 10:9 NASB)
It took them a day to get to Joppa. Meanwhile in Joppa, Peter went onto the rooftop of the house in order to pray at noon. In that culture, the housetop was normally used as a sort of "patio." The flat roofs of houses in Palestine were places of quiet, of relaxation, and of prayer.
Here we have two men thirty miles apart. They must be brought together. In order that they may meet, God sends the angel to Caesarea and grants the ecstatic trance in Joppa:
And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; 11 and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. (Acts 10:10-12 NASB)
He saw a great sheet being let down from heaven filled with animals, insects. and birds. This included four footed beasts; such as pigs, conies, and camels, together with different kinds of birds and many creeping things. And God says:
And a voice came to him, "Arise, Peter, kill and eat!" (Acts 10:13 NASB)
Now to us this is no problem, we would grab a gun and knife and start getting lunch ready. But to a Jew, this is a real problem. Do you know who else this verse is a problem to? PETA! Killing and eating animals, to them, is anathema. This verse tells me it's okay to eat meat, God said, "Kill and eat." And you can't kill a vegetable.
We know why this verse is a problem to PETA, but do we understand why a Jew like Peter would have a problem with it? In Leviticus 11 God laid down absolute standards regarding the diet of the people of Israel:
The LORD spoke again to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, 2 "Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'These are the creatures which you may eat from all the animals that are on the earth. 3 'Whatever divides a hoof, thus making split hoofs, and chews the cud, among the animals, that you may eat. (Leviticus 11:1-3 NASB)
Then in the next four verses he lists the different animals that they could and could not eat. And then He says:
'You shall not eat of their flesh nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you. (Leviticus 11:8 NASB)
Then He goes on to talk about sea food:
'These you may eat, whatever is in the water: all that have fins and scales, those in the water, in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. 10 'But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers, that do not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to you, (Leviticus 11:9-10 NASB)
I'm so glad that this doesn't apply to us today. I love snow crab legs at Captain Georges'! Why did God make the distinction between clean and unclean animals? I think that there were some health concerns here, but the main reason was God wanted to distinguish Israel from other peoples. In those days, social intercourse mainly occurred at banquets. Their primary source of entertainment was feasts.
'You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. 26 'Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. (Leviticus 20:25-26 NASB)
Here we see that God is tying the separation of the dietary laws to not only separating from those foods, but God's desire for the people to be a separated people unto Him. So the distinction of food was actually a metaphor, a picture of what it meant to be a separated people, and that was really the point. So we're not just talking about food here; we're talking about a distinction as it relates to people--Jews and Gentiles.
To Peter, who had always observed the dietary laws, God said:
And a voice came to him, "Arise, Peter, kill and eat!" (Acts 10:13 NASB)
Peter must have wondered what was happening, and even been appalled. How could the Lord tell him to partake of unclean animals, or even to go among that dreadful collection of creatures?
But Peter said, "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." (Acts 10:14 NASB)
How can you say, "No, Lord"? Before you're too hard on Peter, think about this: You hear a voice from heaven telling you to violate the clear teaching of the written word of God. What would you do? Peter may view this as a temptation or test of loyalty. He refuses, announcing his firm resolve to live in ritual purity.
The association of the "clean" animals with the "unclean" must have rendered all "unclean" in Peter's mind. Thus, he could not kill or eat any of them. Clearly, Peter indicates he is abiding by the dietary laws of Israel.
Peter was responding as the prophet Ezekiel had done when the Lord commanded him to eat unclean food as a prophetic drama to show Israel how terrible the captivity would be:
But I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I have never been defiled; for from my youth until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has any unclean meat ever entered my mouth." (Ezekiel 4:14 NASB)
When the prophet protested, the Lord allowed him to substitute another method of preparing the food. Maybe Peter hoped for the same response.
And again a voice came to him a second time, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." (Acts 10:15 NASB)
Verse 17 says, "Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be..." This vision has thoroughly perplexed Peter. He is confused by an evident divine contradiction, a heavenly voice commanding him to disregard food laws that God had given Moses for Israel. How could this be? You may be thinking: Well God gave the food laws, and God can do away with them. That's true, but Peter was probably remembering what Jesus said about the law:
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. 18 "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18 NASB)
The phrase "till heaven and earth pass away" refers to the duration of the whole First Testament's authority. So, Jesus is saying that not a single item of the Law--the First Testament--will ever be changed until heaven and earth pass away.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his commentary on "The Sermon On The Mount," write: "The first proposition is that God's law is absolute; it can never be changed, not even modified to the slightest extent. It is absolute and eternal. Its demands are permanent, and can never be abrogated or reduced 'till heaven and earth pass.' That last expression means the end of the age."
John Brown said: "'Heaven and earth passing,' understood literally, is the dissolution of the present system of the universe, and the period when that is to take place, is called the 'end of the world.' But a person at all familiar with the phraseology of the Old Testament Scriptures, knows that the dissolution of the Mosaic economy, and the establishment of the Christian, is often spoken of as the removing of the old earth and heavens, and the creation of a new earth and new heavens" (vol. 1, p. 170).
So the "passing away of heaven and earth" was the dissolution of the Mosaic economy, which took place in A.D. 70 with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. When Peter saw this vision in Acts 10, heaven and earth hadn't passed away. Peter saw this vision around A.D. 40. So there was still about 30 years until "heaven and earth would pass away." This poses a dilemma. Jesus said none of the law would change until heaven and earth passed away. And yet, God was telling Peter that the dietary laws were set aside. How could this be?
I think the best way to understand this is to see God's statement that He had "cleansed the unholy" as a prolepsis. A prolepsis is the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished. This makes sense. What God was teaching Peter was that the law was beginning to fade away. The process had started and would culminate in the destruction of the temple. To help understand this, look at what Paul says in:
Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day-- 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17 NASB)
Paul says: Don't let anyone judge you in regard to Old Covenant shadows. He is saying that you are under the New Covenant and are free from Old Covenant laws.
Notice what he says, the law is a "shadow of what is to come"--the word "come" is from the Greek word mello, which means: (in the infinitive) "to be about to", and "be on the point of." The "what is to come" refers to the full consummation of the New Covenant. They were "about to come" at A.D. 70, but at the point of this writing, they had not yet come, because heaven and earth had not yet passed away.
I think the only way to understand this apparent contradiction between God saying dietary laws didn't matter and what Jesus said about all the law remains in tack until heaven and earth passed away is to understand the progression: Heaven and earth were passing away while the Church was growing to maturity. The law was fading away:
When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. (Hebrews 8:13 NASB)
Notice that the text says, "....is becoming obsolete .. ready to disappear." Is that speaking to us? NO! This is written to the first century Hebrew believers. As of A.D. 65, the Old Covenant had not yet become obsolete, but it was about to.
The Old Covenant was fading away, while the New Covenant, the Church, was growing to maturity:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 NASB)
The process was still occurring. They were "being built" for a dwelling place of God. But the clear blessing of the New Covenant was that God would dwell with His people. But man's access to God--the consummation of the New Covenant--did not take place until the Old Covenant tabernacle was destroyed:
The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, (Hebrews 9:8 NASB)
Jesus spoke of this process of the Law going out and the Church growing to maturity early in His ministry. Speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees He said:
"And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:10 NASB)
This axe speaks of judgment that was to come upon Jerusalem in forty years, and Jesus said the axe is already coming down. The process had started. So when God speaks of the abolishment of the dietary laws, He is saying that the process has already begun. The Law was passing away.
And this happened three times; and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. (Acts 10:16 NASB)
What stands out to you in this text? I was hoping that after last week's study you would say, "The number three." What is the significance of this happening three times? To the Hebrew, the number 3, 30, 300, 3000 relates to covenants. Y'shua was 3 days in the grave; He said the temple will be broken down and rebuilt in 3 days--referring to His resurrection. He was 33 years old when He died; two three's showing the first and second covenant. There were 3000 saved at Pentecost that came into the New Covenant. I think the significance here is that God is telling Peter that the Old Covenant is passing away. In verse 19 the Spirit tells Peter, "Behold, three men are looking for you." This three would relate to the New Covenant.
It would seem probable that three times Peter refused to eat. Whatever God said, he could not bring himself to break the habits of a lifetime, especially in such an odious way:
Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon's house, appeared at the gate; 18 and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. (Acts 10:17-18 NASB)
While Peter is trying to figure out what this vision meant, three men show up at his house. In Acts 8 we saw how God timed Philip's interception of the Ethiopian's chariot. Now we see the servants of Cornelius arriving at the precise moment to clarify the Divine instructions to Peter's mind.
Cornelius prays and has a vision which prepares him to receive instruction from Peter. Peter prays, and has a vision which prepares and disposes him to give instruction to Cornelius:
And while Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 "But arise, go downstairs, and accompany them without misgivings; for I have sent them Myself." (Acts 10:19-20 NASB)
By providential coincidence, Cornelius' men appear at the gate and call out for Peter just as he is puzzling over the vision. The mathematical probability that those men would knock on the door just after Peter had the vision, but before he woke up, must be astronomical. God not only prepares the receiver and the messenger, but also ordains the divine timing.
The fact that verse 16 says the vision about unclean animals happened three times, and verse 19 says that three men (Gentile men, ordinarily thought unclean) are at the door, is no accident. Peter is supposed to get the message. Peter had to make the logical step from the fact that Gentile food would not defile him to the fact that neither would the Gentiles themselves defile him. For a Jew, it was a radical concept!
It took Peter awhile to grasp the concept that Gentiles were clean. Later, Peter fell into the sin of legalism again in Antioch, the first prominent multi-racial church. When he visited there, he commonly ate with the Gentile Christians until certain Jewish men came from Jerusalem. Then he withdrew and ate with the Jews only. The Apostle Paul had to confront him in front of the church, and Peter repented (Gal. 2:11-14).
Peter is to go with them confidently and without making unnecessary difficulties, or allowing his sense of what was "unclean" to affect his decision, for what is to happen has been cleansed by God. The Spirit tells Peter, "accompany them without misgivings"--the word "misgivings" is from the Greek word diakrino. In the middle or passive voice this verb can mean either: "to take issue with" or "to be at odds with oneself, to doubt, to waver, to have misgivings."
And Peter went down to the men and said, "Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?" 22 And they said, "Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you." (Acts 10:22 NASB)
These Gentiles informed Peter that Cornelius, a Roman centurion, but one who was a God-fearing, righteous man, highly respected among the Jews, had been warned by God through a holy angel to request that Peter come to his house.
The Spirit had told Peter that he was to go with these Gentiles, to the home of a Gentile, without agonizing over the "defilement":
And so he invited them in and gave them lodging. And on the next day he arose and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. (Acts 10:23 NASB)
Lodging is literally: "to entertain strangers." Peter didn't just coldly give these Gentile visitors a room, he entertained them as welcome guests, and he did this against every custom of the Jews. Peter's hospitality is a sign that he agrees to their request, which was not permitted for a Jew.
Up to this point in the history of the early Church, the Gospel had been carried only to the Jews and Samaritans, which were half-Jews and worshipers of Yahweh. There is the solitary incident of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, who himself was a worshiper of Yahweh. But there had been no conversion of a group of Gentiles, which represented the mass of population outside Judaism. Carrying the Gospel to Cornelius represented a new step in the Gospel work of the Church. They had kept to themselves, to Jews only. Now they would branch out into the forbidden realm of Gentiles. This was not just a little hurdle for these Jewish Christians. This was leaping across a chasm that no Jew was willing to cross.
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