Two weeks ago, in chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles we heard about the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch through Philip, the evangelist. Last week in chapter 9, we stepped away from Philip to hear about Saul’s conversion and how he was struck blind by Jesus. Jesus told Saul in no uncertain terms just exactly who it was that he was persecuting. He then told him to continue to Damascus, where he was subsequently healed by Ananias 3 days later.
In chapter 10 we enter an entirely new and exciting phase of the Christian Church, the opening of the door of faith to the Gentiles. In other words, to anyone who was not a Jew. They were now recognized on equal terms with the Jews. We discover that Peter has been conferred the honor of initiating this great movement. Consequently, we step away from Saul to hear about the conversion of a Roman centurion named Cornelius.
Cornelius lives in Caesarea, located 32 miles north of Joppa, and named in honor of Augustus Caesar. The largest and most important port city on the Mediterranean in Palestine, Caesarea served as the capital of the Roman province of Judea and served as the headquarters of the Roman forces. Caesarea is remarkable in that it was the first city to have Gentile Christians and a non-Jewish church. However, although stationed in Caesarea, Cornelius would probably return to Rome. Thus, his conversion was a major stepping-stone for spreading the gospel to the empire’s capital city.
When thinking back over the last 3 chapters in Acts, and the 3 men we hear about who experienced conversion, there is an astounding truth that we do not want to miss. And that is the unbelievable precision of our amazing God. We are witness to His incredible orchestration of all that happened in the lives of these 3 men – of the actual events that occurred leading up to their conversion. Please understand, they were all directed by God to follow Jesus Christ. As “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). God lined everything up. He put together each minute detail that would result in their conversions – the Ethiopian, Saul and now Cornelius. Their salvation was a direct result of divine intervention. Praise God and His Holy Name!
Clearly God had a plan for each one of these men and He put into motion what was needed for His plan to come to fruition. We do not want to miss this astounding truth! And we need to always remember it because church family, He has done the same for us. He has created a plan and purpose for each one of us! He has divinely intervened at various times throughout our lives for very important reasons. The question is are we walking in His plan for our lives? Are we following Jesus? Have we allowed Him to intervene, because clearly as we will see in this story – faith in God alone is not enough, we must also have faith in Christ!
Now centurions were essential to the Roman army as they provided necessary stability to the entire Roman system and were distinguished by their ability to lead. As a centurion, Cornelius commanded a military unit that normally numbered 100 soldiers. The Roman legion (about 6,000 men) was divided into 10 regiments. Thus, a centurion commanded about a sixth of a regiment. Centurions were carefully selected men; and all of them mentioned in the NT appear to have had noble qualities, and Cornelius is no different.
As a matter of fact, Cornelius and his family were devout God-fearers. We are told in our scripture passage this morning that he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. He exhibited exemplary piety, and as such, his prayers were heard by God. God-fearers were Gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel and respected the moral and ethical teachings of the Jews. They associated themselves with the life of the synagogue and certain aspects of Torah-observance but had not fully converted to Judaism – rather they stopped short of becoming full Jews in lifestyle and in circumcision. As a God-fearer, Cornelius respected Jewish beliefs and customs (including food laws and special days), and often associated with the Jews.
Which is quite remarkable when you consider that a patriotic Jew of that day would naturally dislike or possibly even hate him. As Roman soldiers did not have a great reputation since they were often involved in extortion and brutalization of the local population. However, Jewish people of that time did respect and appreciate these God-fearing Gentiles. The Jews were greatly limited however, in that they could not really share their life, homes and food with them. Because God-fearers were still in fact Gentiles.
Here is the second point we absolutely do not want to miss in this story! Despite all of Cornelius’ good deeds, even though he knew and loved the one true God, and he prayed to Him daily, it was not enough. He needed to hear the way of salvation, as did the Ethiopian and Saul. And what is the way? Or perhaps instead I should ask, who is the way? Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Now I am sure like me you have often wondered what will happen to those who never hear about Jesus Christ. If God is a just God, and we know that He is, what will He do in these situations? Cornelius was not a believer in Christ, but he was seeking God, and he was reverent and generous. Therefore, God sent Peter to tell Cornelius about Jesus. Remember, God wants all to be found, “He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1st Timothy 2:4). Cornelius is a wonderful example that God indeed “rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
But, again, knowing and loving the true God was not enough. He needed to know Jesus too! He needed faith in Jesus! He needed to follow Jesus. This is a big concern for me right now and perhaps it is for you as well. Many, many people believe in God! They, just like Cornelius, are good people! They may be generous and donate money throughout the year. They may volunteer and serve in various ways to help those who are disenfranchised – the poor, the widows, the orphans, the immigrants, those in prison, etc. Yet, if Jesus is not their Lord and Savior – they are not saved. This passage – this story – makes this truth – very clear. Cornelius did not know the way of salvation – but the Father, because Cornelius was seeking – provided the way. Not only literally through the death of Jesus on the cross, but He led Cornelius to the truth of his need to have faith in Christ.
So, how did this come about? God sent an angel to Cornelius. Of course, as you would expect, this frightened Cornelius as I am sure it would frighten you and me if the Lord sent an angel to us. The angel basically told him that God had seen and heard his prayers. He announced to Cornelius that he was to send for Simon Peter who was in Joppa. The angel even told him exactly where Peter was located so there was no guesswork involved. However, please note, even though God did not tell him why he was to send for Simon Peter, Cornelius was obedient and did exactly as he was told. The next day, he sent two of his servants as well as one soldier to find Peter and bring him back to Caesarea.
Notice, first God spoke to Cornelius through an angel. Then when Cornelius sent the messengers to retrieve Peter, God the Holy Spirit spoke to Peter himself, just as the three men were approaching the city. Peter had gone up to the roof to pray. It was customary for eastern houses to have flat roofs with outside stairways. The roof was used as a convenient place for relaxation and privacy. We are told that Peter was hungry, and his meal was being prepared for him, and that while he was praying, he fell into a trance.
A trance is a state of mind produced by God who then used it to communicate with Peter. It was not merely Peter’s imagination or a dream. His consciousness was heightened to receive the vision from God. “Peter saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by it’s four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up Peter. Kill and eat.’” Peter had this vision three times; the repetition served to confirm the shocking message and emphasize its significance.
Peter was confused and told the Lord no, he was not going to get up, kill and eat because he had never eaten anything impure or unclean before. Yes, you heard me right, Peter said no to God, which is absurd when you think about it. The only legitimate answer to a request from God is a resounding “yes!” Clearly, though, he struggled to understand what God was doing. And don’t we all? Don’t we all struggle to understand what God is doing at times in our lives? God responded to Peter’s no with, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Keep in mind, Peter’s struggle with this came as his lifelong adherence to the Jewish food laws collided with the Lord’s command to kill and eat unclean animals. According to Jewish law, certain foods were forbidden to be eaten. The food laws even made it difficult for Jews to eat with Gentiles without risking defilement. In fact, the Gentiles themselves were often seen as “unclean.” In saying that, it is easier to understand the vision. It makes perfect sense that clean and unclean animals were used in the vision because the Jews considered the Gentiles unclean.
Peter was trying to figure out what the vision meant and while doing so, the men sent by Cornelius arrived at the gate. Simultaneously, the Holy Spirit told him there were three men looking for him and he was to go with them without hesitation as He had sent them. The three men explained to Peter that Cornelius was told by an angel to send for him. Peter invited them in for the night. By providing lodging for them Peter was already taking the first step toward accepting Gentiles. Such an intimate relationship with Gentiles was contrary to prescribed Jewish practice. The next day they all left to go to Caesarea.
In anticipation of Peter’s arrival Cornelius had called together his relatives and close friends. When Peter walked inside and found a large gathering, he stated to all, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So, when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:28-29). Cornelius explains he was told by the angel to do so. “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right’” (10:34). Now what does this mean? That ALL those who have faith in Christ are welcome in the family of God. Peter then goes on to share the gospel with all present. While he was still speaking the Holy Spirit came upon all who heard the message and everyone listening began to speak in tongues just like on the day of Pentecost. Peter then proclaims they should be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and so they were.
Peter’s vision meant that he should not look upon Gentiles as inferior people whom God would not redeem. Before having the vision, Peter would have thought a Gentile Roman officer could not become a follower of Christ. Afterward, he understood that it was his responsibility to go with the messengers into a Gentile home and tell Cornelius the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Steeped in Jewish tradition and filled with certain biases, Peter had been convinced that his views on Gentiles were correct. It took a heavenly vision for God to change Peter’s mind. The final lesson from this chapter in Acts that I would like us to walk away with is that when God speaks, we must not challenge what he says. Doubting God is rebellion. When God tells us something, we should not debate with him. The right response is humble submission to his revealed truth. Have you ever argued with God over some point that he has already made clear? I certainly have.
Remember brothers and sisters – Cornelius was religious, devoted, respected and sincere. However, he was still spiritually separated from God. Because he needed to understand the gospel, God sent Peter to present to him the truth about salvation. We must be careful not to equate earnestness with righteousness before God. We are brought into right standing with God by faith in Christ alone. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” 2nd Cor. 5:21. Do you believe and trust in Jesus? Are you sharing with others the truth that Christ is the only way to God?Let us pray. Holy and Gracious God we praise You for your amazing grace, your amazing goodness, and your amazing love! Thank you for sending your Son Jesus so that we might be reconciled to you. Thank you for leading us to Him, for drawing us near. Thank you for all your provision and protection. Thank you for keeping us healthy and well. Thank you for this church and this family of believers. May we glorify your Great Name and bear fruit for your Great Kingdom. Now let us pray the words our Lord and Savior Jesus taught us……
Have a wonderful day! Enjoy this beautiful weather!! Remember Jesus loves you and so do I!