Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 2: Peter and Cornelius)

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Unity in Acts of the Apostles (Part 2: Peter and Cornelius)

The second part of the Unity in Acts of the Apostles series focuses on Acts 10, which relates the conversion of Cornelius and his household. The two main characters in this story are Cornelius–a Roman centurion–and Peter the apostle. Both are prominent figures in Acts: Cornelius is a leader in the Roman army, and Peter is a leader in the incipient Christian church. These two individuals are bound to meet in one of the most unusual accounts of the entire New Testament.

Like the Ethiopian eunuch, who was a believer in God, Cornelius was also a God-fearing man (vs. 1), though he did not attend the services at the synagogue (as the Ethiopian eunuch likely did). The centurion was also a well-to-do representative of a foreign ruler (as the Ethiopian eunuch was). A further similarity between the two stories is that, in both cases, the Holy Spirit orchestrates an encounter between a God-fearing Gentile and a follower of Jesus—both of whom are, in each story, very devoted to God.

The devotion of Cornelius is stated in no ambiguous terms at the beginning of the chapter: He feared God and prayed to him always. The Greek expression translated as “always” is dia pantos, which literally means “through everything.”[1] This was a man who made God front and center in everything he did, and his household appeared to be following his example (vs. 2). Already, even before officially becoming a Christian, he was a disciple of God.

The narrative opens up with Cornelius having a vision at the “ninth hour” (vs. 3)–three o’clock in the afternoon. Incidentally, this is the time when the Jews prayed the daily prayer at the temple.[2] It appears that Cornelius followed the Jewish prayer rituals even while he, like the Ethiopian eunuch, was not able to participate in the temple services.

In this vision, an angel of God initiates a dialogue with him by calling his name, to which Cornelius, afraid, asked: “What is it, Lord?” (vs. 3-4). The angel reassures him with affirming words, after which he gives a command: Cornelius is to send someone to Joppa to fetch Simon Peter (vs. 5). This imperativeness of the command consists not only in the fact that it was given by an angel, but in that it indicated Peter would tell Cornelius what to do (vs. 6). The vision seems to come as an answer to an implicit prayer of the centurion: “What must I do?”

The emissaries set off, and the story now shifts to Peter, who receives a vision during prayer too. As with Cornelius, the narrative gives us specific details about Peter’s vision, which took place at the sixth hour. This was noon time, and therefore not a typical prayer time (which would have been 9 a.m. or 3 p.m). [3] We are also told that Peter became hungry (vs. 10), not at a typical meal time either (which would have been mid-morning and late afternoon). Adding to the unusualness, the word prospeinos (hungry) is a rare word, used only once in the entire New Testament.[4]

It would be safe to assume, therefore, that Peter was taken in vision as he was breaking a fast. In verse 30, we learn that Cornelius had also been taken in vision after a fast. Before they meet in person, the two men are connected with each other through their fasting and prayers. They are connected with each other because they are connected with God.

In his vision, Peter “saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat’ ” (vs. 11-13). Peter refuses, due to his commitment to the Torah laws. The voice of God, however, speaks again: “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (vs. 15). The interchange is repeated three times, after which the laden sheet is taken back up into heaven.

What an odd command! Peter, hungry after a fast, is asked by God to eat unclean animals. The Torah is specific about which animals are clean, and which aren’t. Why would God speak against God? If the direction God gives Cornelius is peculiar, the command He gives Peter is baffling.

But Peter is not left to wonder long. The delegation arrives at the house and asks for Peter. The Spirit is unequivocal: “Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them” (vs. 20). Peter complies, houses the guests, and the next day he accompanies them to Caesarea along with six other Christians from Joppa (vs. 23).

He arrives at a house full of Gentiles ready to hear the gospel (vs. 24) and, after declining the reverence due to God alone (vs. 25-26), begins his address with a genuine statement of affairs: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?” (vs. 28-29).

It is interesting that the word Peter uses here to indicate unlawfulness is athemitos (vs. 28), which “implies social taboo” not anomos, which means “unlawful.”[5] Following the divine command, Peter breaks through the barriers of social prohibitions in order to maintain his allegiance to a higher power—the God of heaven. An important barrier was broken here, as table fellowship is crucial for the breaking down of the more significant wall. Peter’s words indicate the urgency of the matter and the immediacy of his obedience as he asks why he was called.

Cornelius first shares the vision experience, and then indicates why Peter was called: so that those present “hear all the things commanded [him] by God” (vs. 33). In response, Peter solemnly declares: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (vs. 35).

Related: Read another article series exploring theological unity within the Adventist church

This may sound like common sense to a Christian living today, but for the first Christians, this realization was a monumental breakthrough. Bound by centuries of misunderstanding of Scripture, the Jews had separated themselves from other nations, thinking themselves superior as God’s elected people, and expecting a Messiah who would bring them political freedom and economic prosperity. Yet Jesus, instead of edifying those walls, tore them down through His own ministry and example—and subsequently through clear guidance to his disciples.

As the story and the teaching progresses, so does Peter’s understanding. If initially he was reluctant, little by little, he opens his heart to this new reality. Eventually, as the Holy Spirit manifests itself and falls upon the Gentiles (vs. 45-46), he boldly declares: “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (vs. 47). Thus, Cornelius’ household is baptized into Christianity, and with this event, another barrier is broken down as the Holy Spirit unifies the Christian church on the basis of belief in Jesus Christ.

The gospel had always been meant for all nations, and Peter discovers this for the first time as a guest in a Gentile’s home. Already the social norms had been broken as Peter enters the centurion’s home. More importantly, the spiritual and religious barriers are broken as Peter understands that salvation is available to all who believe in Christ and accept his sacrifice on their behalf.

As Peter’s vision suggested, the blood of Jesus cleanses all who are willing to be made clean, and is efficacious regardless of gender, sex, nationality, ethnicity, color, or any social, cultural, and economical facets. Once again, as in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we learn that what unites those who belong in the kingdom of God is a genuine belief in Christ and wholehearted acceptance of His sacrifice, which will inevitably result in an authentic relationship with God and those united in the same allegiance to God.

Related: Click here to read the rest of this series

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Notes.

[1] David B. Woods, Interpreting Peter’s Vision in Acts 10:9–16, (Conspectus, South African Theological Seminary, March 2012, Vol. 13), pg. 185.

[2] Woods, pg. 185.

[3] Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), pg. 388.

[4] Bock, pg. 388.

[5] Woods, pg. 182-183.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.