There is no question that the letter we call The Acts, the longest letter in the New Testament apart from Luke’s first letter, is filled with high drama. We read of the baptism of 3000 in one day and then we hear of imprisonment. We see unbounding generosity and unity side by side with sudden death. There is irresistible wisdom silenced by irresistible hatred. We find great missionary triumphs, destructive persecutions, dramatic conversions, humiliating escapes over a wall in a basket, murders, attempted murders and last minute reprieves.

It is a book which chronicles the stages through which the early ecclesia passed, as it slowly freed itself from its purely Jewish environment to become a true global ecclesia with faith as the key element in its constitution. We watch as Christianity grows like a mustard seed to absorb Samaria, then Judea, Galilee and Caesarea; then Antioch, from which it rapidly spreads through Turkey to Greece, until at Rome it stands as the religion for the entire world. And at each step we find abundant evidence of the Father’s footprints etched in the shorelines of both Jewish and Gentile lands.

One of the more remarkable testimonies involving the providence of God is seen in Acts 10 which records the circumstances surrounding the baptism of Cornelius. The involvement of the Spirit in this chapter is evident every step of the way. An angel, a trance, the Spirit and finally the outpouring of the Holy Spirit all reveal the Divine involvement. Acts 10 stands like a fulcrum in the book of Acts, and with such a dramatic shift in ideology on such a controversial, emotive and potentially divisive issue, it was essential the whole course of events be Divinely guided.

The Conversion of Peter

It is often said that this chapter records the conversion of Cornelius, but Luke reveals that Cornelius himself was in no need of conversion—he was already converted! All he needed was baptism and an official welcome into the ‘mother ecclesia’. The one who was converted was the apostle who would baptise him. Acts 10 is really all about the conversion of Peter! By the end of the story the Gentile was no longer an outcast from Israel and the Jew was no longer the sole guardian of the Truth. This was the last great hurdle in the proclamation of the Truth—this is the record of that hurdle being successfully scaled.

Acts 9:43 tells us that Peter was dwelling in Joppa with Simon a tanner. This fact is a revelation in itself! It seems Peter had already abandoned Rabbinic scrupulosity because there was no way an uncompromising follower of the Law could dwell with a tanner! According to the Jews the daily contact with carcases and hides rendered the person and house unclean. One Rabbi said that, “lodging with a tanner was a step on the road to eating with a Gentile”—and how right he was! In a short while, through the providence of God, Peter would not just be eating with Gentiles but baptising them and giving them the right hand of fellowship!

A Centurion of the Italian Band

Acts 10:1 introduces us to a Roman centurion. Luke evidently had great admiration for Cornelius because there are few characters described by him at all, let alone in such a positive and approving fashion. Verse 3 goes on to state that Cornelius had a vision and distinctly saw “an angel of God coming in to him”. In verse 30 Cornelius recalling the event says, “… I prayed in my house …”; and in chapter 11:13 Peter relating the experience of Cornelius says, “he had seen an angel in his house”. Why such an emphasis on “in his house”? Because the house of Cornelius was about to become part of the ecclesial house. Cornelius was not on the street corner praying. He was inside his house praying in his closet, in privacy, just as Christ had commanded. The angel could have appeared to him at any time and in any place. But the providential way dictated that the angel appear at a time which would be most beneficial to the overall cause—and the best time and place was when he was praying in his house.

The message of the angel in verses 4 and 5 was firstly one of reassurance and secondly one of command—“send men to Joppa and call for Peter”. Verses 7 and 33 reveal Cornelius’ response: it was one of immediate action—men were sent that afternoon to Joppa to fetch Peter and bring him to Caesarea.

But the question must be asked: why wasn’t Cornelius told by the angel to go to Joppa and see Peter there? Why was it that the angel said to send men and get them to bring Peter to you? Amazing really, seeing the Old Testament precedent would surely suggest Cornelius should go to Peter. Naaman, captain of the host in Syria, journeyed to Israel to meet Elisha and demanded to see him (2 Kings 5). Why not Cornelius?

The answer lies in the fact that Peter visiting Cornelius would bring about a course of events which would dramatically conclude with a frank admission prior to baptism, not from Cornelius but from Peter. At this baptism, Peter was the one who would confess that “all flesh is grass” and would acknowledge that “of a truth… God is no respecter of persons”. Providence called Peter to Gentile Caesarea to walk side by side with a Gentile in the fight of faith, and to do what was unlawful for Jews to do—to dine with them. He ate with Gentiles! Not only that, he later willingly tarried with them longer than necessary. The wisdom and providence of God was about to turn the ecclesial world upside down.

God Can Cleanse the Unclean

Acts 10:7-8 record that Cornelius rehearsed the vision to his servants (cp John 15:15), and then sent them on the 60km trip to Joppa protected by a devout soldier as a bodyguard. Such was the importance Cornelius placed on these men and their message. While these three men were travelling, God challenged Peter’s cherished prejudices.

The issue of cleansing the unclean was beginning to assume momentous proportions in his mind. Should the inestimable benefits of the life and death of Christ be confined to a perishing nationality with an obsolete covenant or extended freely to all races? The answer, the future, all depended on the decision taken by one who claimed no higher earthly authority than that of a Jewish fisherman. But God chooses His people wisely. And here in the tanner’s house at Joppa these difficulties were to meet their Divine and final solution. With such questions weighing heavily on his heart and mind the fisherman mounted the steps to the flat roof for his midday prayer.

The Vision of the Vessel

Verse 10 says, “he became very hungry”. Peter had to be hungry for this trance to have any effect, otherwise his rejection of the invitation would simply have been that he had just eaten lunch and was not in need of any further food. The Greek word used here only occurs once, here, and it means “to be intensely hungry”. Now it is possible to think this was just prior to the customary hour of dining, however the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans had but two meals – the first between 10 and 11 and the principal meal around 6 or 7 in the evening. So more than likely he had just eaten – yet he is “intensely hungry”. There is something amazingly natural in how the truths of such transcending importance were brought home to Peter—through natural feelings. To Peter all was natural, but the hunger was instigated by the providence of God to the fulfilment of His own high ends.

While food was being prepared Peter fell into a state of mind which saw his attention so absorbed in one particular train of thought that it overcame the senses of his body. The record in verse10 calls it a trance. The word “trance” is not the same as the “vision” Cornelius received in verse 3. Again the question must be asked, why was Cornelius graced with the presence of an angel, whilst Peter fell into a trance? Why didn’t an angel appear before Peter and tell him the lesson God wanted to teach him? In such a short space of time the hand of God was revealed in two totally different ways. Yet that is the way God has consistently worked through time, and will continue to do so—in a way appropriate to the individual, the event and the desired outcome. Peter was to be forced to come to a conclusion himself. He was to discover for himself, to answer to his own conscience.

The vessel he saw contained an indescribable conglomeration of living creatures—wild, tame, large, small, birds, and serpents, clean and unclean animals. Just as the site of the medley of creatures stirred up in Peter all his innate Jewish prejudices, a voice called, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.” There might not have been a problem with rising and killing, but eating! Subsequently a polite refusal was uttered, for he had “never” at any time partaken of such unclean food. Surely it was better to die of hunger than violate the rules of the Law.

Barriers Removed

But what does Peter mean when using the terms “common or unclean”? The answer to this question cuts to the core of the reason why God did not send an angel to tell Peter what to do, but instead gave him something to think about.

The word “common” denotes “what pertains to all”. The Jews used the word as a contrast to the word “sacred”, particularly the sacred food they ate in contrast to the food in common or polluted use among the Gentiles. The distinction between “common” and “sacred” was one of the insuperable barriers which prevented all contact between Jew and Gentile. It was mainly by partaking of unclean food that the Gentiles became so unclean to the Jews.

The word “unclean” denotes “ceremonially unclean”. Some of the animals on the great sheet were “clean” under the Law, but through contact with unclean animals had been defiled and could not be eaten. To Peter, clean animals were made unclean by association and everything about the proposal to kill and eat ran against all his training and conscience. So the reply was instinctive. None of those animals are good enough for consumption. Even the clean are contaminated by their association with the common!

So what was the point of the trance? The design of the vision was to show that the Law was now ready to be taken out of the way. The Lord’s command was meant to free Peter from any concerns about going to a Gentile house and eating whatever was set before him. It would be a short step from recognising that Gentile food was clean to recognising that Gentiles themselves were “clean” also. The Levitical law of clean and unclean food was designed to keep a distinction between Jew and Gentile, and when the Law was abolished and all meats were declared clean, then that distinction between Jew and Greek received its death blow and expired. But Peter did not immediately grasp this and the providential course of events which now occurred was to assist him to do so.

“Behold, the men which were sent from Cornelius… stood before the gate.” The first voices heard by Peter after the trance were the voices of Gentiles! A remarkable arrangement of events that again seem so natural, yet providentially controlled. Just as the trance is over and Peter’s mind is absolutely filled with perplexity, right then, men arrive at his gate and provide the answer to Peter in a most astonishing way.

But he did not make the connection immediately and the Spirit, in verses 19–20, instructed Peter directly (with no vision or trance this time) to go with the men: the Spirit clearly linking the messengers and their mission with the trance in the words, “I have sent them”.

Peter went as instructed, and when the group finally arrived at Caesarea and saw Cornelius they violated all the traditions of the day, as well as the national customs of many centuries, by walking side by side with Cornelius in free conversation. In fact, of all the times the words “talked with” appear in the New Testament only once does it use the Greek word meaning to “converse mutually” and it’s right here in verse 27!

Here they were, Jew and Gentile talking equally, mutually, with one accord and they did so until they came into the house where they found many “come together”. How striking that this word is used in 1 Corinthians 11:33 in the context of the memorial meeting, the feast of love, “when ye come together to eat…”. And here is Peter walking arm in arm with a Gentile into his house to baptise him, break bread and drink wine with him in a love feast that broke down that middle wall of partition. The hand of God’s providence revealed itself through every step, guiding the affairs of Peter, not to take away his free-will, but to confront him, challenge him and convince him of the universality of Christ’s sacrifice and Gospel.

A Frank Admission

Cornelius was not taught the Truth by Peter; he already knew it. Peter’s dissertation from verses 34 to 43 was not an effort to preach the Truth, but was in fact a frank admission of his own conversion. This is confirmed for us in verse 43 when Peter says that “whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins”. Peter now fully appreciates the universality of Christ and is openly rejoicing with this new understanding.

But the wisdom of God was to be revealed yet once more in this story so saturated with providence. While Peter was openly expressing his new found understanding, the “Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the word”. The effect was impressive. The six fiercely loyal Jewish brethren who accompanied Peter were astonished beyond belief that the Gentiles should have received the Spirit, and clearly it was not given by Peter but came from above.

God was not unmindful of the instilled prejudices of the Jewish ecclesia and through careful and wise providence steered the outcome to a wonderful conclusion. Peter and his brethren were converted, Cornelius and his house were baptised, and the door of faith was opened to the Gentile world.

The lesson for us is clear. Our Lord walks in the midst of the ecclesias mindful of our attitude towards each other. He is able to skilfully work in our midst through His foresight and providential guidance. We need to be as receptive as Peter was, able to ponder the circumstances of life from God’s viewpoint and change our lives when the need arises. It is truly humbling to see the hand of God reveal itself from time to time in our lives. May we be encouraged to appreciate the significance of this and understand the power of Paul’s words: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31).