Chapter 2: Cornelius receives his orders—and so does Peter!
1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, 2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.
3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius!’ 4 And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, ‘What is it, lord?’ So he said to him, ‘Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. 6 He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.’
7 And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. 8 So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
9 The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’
14 But Peter said, ‘Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.’
15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ 16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
17 Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate. 18 And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there.
19 While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are seeking you. 20 Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.’
21 Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, ‘Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?’ 22 And they said, ‘Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.’
23 Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him.
God prepares Cornelius
A Roman centurion is an intelligent, disciplined, experienced, talented, battle-hardened leader of men. He only moves his military career forward by being successful in battle and in leadership. He is ‘readier to execute the orders he receives than to talk’.1 His iron will in battle, advanced weaponry skills, and strength in leadership mean he does not panic through fear or ask others to do his duty for him. Yet he delegates tasks wisely and trains up those under his command. Such is Cornelius.
But Cornelius is much more than that. He is unique in the pagan Roman multi-god culture in which he lives and works. He devoutly fears God, leads his household in Caesarea to do the same, gives money or goods generously to poor people,2 and is a man of prayer. Yet for all this, he has not yet found Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. You can be sincerely religious and yet not be saved. But there is something in this man’s seeking heart that cries out for God and reality. God hears that cry. This man knows little or nothing of God’s word, but in a vision one afternoon3 he is frightened as God calls him by name and speaks to him by an angel. The sincerity of his search for God, resulting in his prayers and in his giving alms, leads God to direct him to send men to call for Simon Peter (whom we call Peter) to come to his house. Peter is staying at Joppa with his friend Simon, the tanner (whom we call Simon). In a reversal of the command structure Peter, the preaching Galilean fisherman, will tell the respected Roman centurion what he ‘must do’. Cornelius shows his open heart and humble mind towards God when, rather like Saul’s reaction to Jesus on the Damascus road,4 he immediately responds to God’s speaking to him by asking, ‘What is it, Lord?’ Salvation is all about Christ becoming your Lord and Saviour. How interesting that in this time of angelic vision and self-revelation of God to Cornelius, God nevertheless decides to use a man, not an angel, to explain the gospel to the centurion and his friends in order that some should come to Christ. You might think angels would do it better! But God’s method is to use converted sinners to share God’s message with other sinners. Today God still seeks Christians who are willing to go and make disciples of others by personally sharing the gospel of the cross with them.5
Any centurion knows how to send men on a mission! This centurion has the added impetus of being told by God to send men to Peter. He obeys. Two servants and a ‘devout soldier’ are chosen from those who wait on him. Cornelius sets a good example to anyone who needs to send others with an important task to do. He gives his messengers a full explanation of just what is happening before sending them to Peter in Joppa. They will be able to explain the situation to Peter and be more involved personally. Perhaps this will cause them to be open to the blessing to come.
Peter’s strange visions
The scene now changes to noon6 of the next day. As Cornelius’s three men enter Joppa, Peter is praying on Simon’s flat rooftop in Joppa. Peter suffers acute hunger and falls into a trance while food is being prepared. This forms an appropriate backcloth to the strange vision he now receives of something like a huge sheet, fastened at each corner, coming down from above to earth. Birds, creepy-crawlies, and wild animals are in the sheet along with ‘all kinds of four-footed animals’. Peter hears a voice urging him, ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat’. He refuses and explains to God—think about this!—how as an orthodox Jew he has ‘never eaten anything common or unclean’. The voice replies telling him not to call ‘common’ what ‘God has cleansed’. On three occasions this is repeated, before the sheet-like object is taken back to Heaven. God does not risk the possibility of Peter’s coming out of his trance and dismissing or forgetting this vision. That is why He reminds Peter three times. God often underlines a point he has to make to us today through His word, the Bible, by repeating it to us as we read it in another passage or hear it preached or taught.
The fog begins to lift
Perplexed Peter is in a swirling fog of confusion. What on earth does all this mean? Peter will later encourage Christians, facing fierce persecution in the Roman Empire under Nero, to pray by ‘casting all your care upon Him [that is upon the Lord] for He cares for you’.7 But now it seems that Peter does not even have time to pray before God kindly sorts it all out for him, overwhelmed as he is in this completely new situation in Joppa. He experiences what Isaiah described and what every Christian thankfully finds true at times ‘that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear’.8 In God’s gracious timing Cornelius’s two servants and the ‘devout soldier’ arrive at Simon’s house to ask for Peter. The Holy Spirit himself assures Peter, as he thinks about the vision, to go down to meet the three men and not to doubt. ‘I have sent them’, the Holy Spirit adds. Cornelius was just God’s agent doing what God had planned when he delegated the work to his servants and soldier!
Peter is obedient to God and goes to identify himself to the men. They tell him about Cornelius and what has happened. How important that Cornelius explained the situation to them clearly before he sent them to Peter! They make quite clear to Peter that it is a ‘holy angel’ (not merely a Roman centurion) who now summons Peter to Cornelius’s house and that they all expect to ‘hear words from’ him. This is a preaching invitation which Peter dare not turn down!
Peter is being prepared gradually by God that non-Jews, as well as Jews, must receive the message that Christ died for sinners and will forgive and save all who turn from their sins and receive Him as their Lord and Saviour. Gentiles9 are regarded as unclean by the Jews, who see themselves as clean. God’s gospel will show that Jews and Gentiles are all unclean through sin but that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin those who repent and believe on Him.10
Peter gives his three visitors hospitality, which is always good for Christian leaders to do, and goes with them the next day to meet Cornelius and those who will gather to hear what Peter has to say. Peter does not restrict the potential blessing to Caesarea, where his host-to-be lives. He takes with him some Christians from Joppa. Why should they not be blessed too by what God is about to do? And no doubt they will help by speaking to others about their Saviour.
Questions on Chapter 2
Acts 10:1–23 Cornelius receives his orders—And so does Peter!
A. How can God’s dealing with Cornelius encourage religious well-meaning people who are not yet Christians? How should Cornelius’s lifestyle challenge us all, Christian or non-Christian?
Acts 10:1–8, Ephesians 2:8–10
B. Put yourself in Peter’s place. What do you think he would make of the vision? Bearing in mind Peter’s first reaction, why do you think that it happened three times?
Acts 10:9–16, Leviticus 11 (skim the chapter), Romans 3:9–31, Jonah 3:1, 1 Samuel 3:8, John 21:15–17
C. Consider God’s perfect timing in this passage as He begins to convince Peter that Gentiles as well as Jews need the gospel message of the Lord Jesus Christ. Consider other examples in the Bible where God’s timing is seen to be perfect. How should this fact encourage you in your own life?
Acts 10:17–23, Acts 10:3, Acts 10:9, Esther 4:14, Esther 6:1–11, Psalm 31:15, 1 Samuel 24:1–22
- Quoted from the Wikipedia online definition of ‘Centurion’. ↩
- This is the meaning of ‘alms’. In Britain, alms houses were provided for the poor and needy, illustrating the meaning of ‘alms’. ↩
- In Acts 10:3 the ‘ninth hour of the day’ in Caesarea is equivalent to 3.00 pm. ↩
- Acts 9:5. Saul, later to become Paul, when approached by Jesus on the Damascus road, cried out, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ ↩
- Matthew 28:19–20, Romans 10:14 ↩
- In Acts 10:9, ‘the sixth hour’ in Joppa is equivalent to noon. ↩
- 1 Peter 5:7 ↩
- Isaiah 65:24 ↩
- Simply put, anyone who is not a Jew is a Gentile. Sometimes the New Testament uses the word ‘Greek’ instead of ‘Gentile’ in contrast to Jew. ↩
- 1 John 1:5–10, Romans 3:9–31 ↩