1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8 He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
I seem to get a lot of questions wherever I go about what my plans for the future are. People are constantly interested in whether we plan to stay in the ministry where we are at or if we would hope to move somewhere else one day. Or they want to know what is in store as far as the teaching ministry goes. Usually I tell them that it is all up to God. I say that because it is true. We don’t have any plans to go anywhere and I pray constantly that the teaching ministry will go exactly where God wants to take it. At the same time, we are always open to God’s call upon our life. Every now and then, though, someone will ask me quite specifically if I would ever be open to moving to one place or another to serve in the ministry in that place or even to plant one where there is a gap. Sometimes the places that people mention are actually quite attractive and I just tell them that if we ever felt God calling, we would be happy to go (usually those places involve somewhere with rather consistently warm weather, at least those are the places that sound most attractive to my wife and oldest son). On occasion, though, someone will bring up a place that I just don’t want to go and ask me if I might ever consider going there, like my hometown for instance. In those cases, I usually joke that I would be more than happy to go once the actual hand of God appeared and wrote specific instructions on the wall for us to go. Anything short of that, I jest, and I would not go. I usually say this jokingly, but the point is real. There are some things that are so challenging to our way of thinking that it would take something out-of-the-norm, something monumental, in order for us to be willing to do it.
Throughout his ministry Jesus had hinted that the time was coming when the physical Israel would no longer automatically be the children of God, God’s people. Jesus had said that a time was soon coming when the people of Israel would say “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But, Jesus responded that he would reply, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” Jesus went on to promise that there would “be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (Lk. 13:26-29). This was nothing new. After all, the prophets had declared that God’s intention was to bring all nations into the kingdom of God (see Isa. 56:1-7 for instance).
This was no easy concept, however. It wasn’t something that Jews, even Jewish Christians could easily understand or accept (in fact it would take them the first entire generation of Christianity to start to sort it all out), even though Jesus had clearly told them that their mission was to involve going to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). If one held so tightly to a certain definition and understanding of what it meant to be part of God’s people, it would be easy to miss what God was going to do with the Gentiles. After all, the Jews had kept themselves apart from the nations for hundreds of years, at God’s behest, by not intermingling with Gentiles. They circumcised themselves to demonstrate their covenant with God and to show themselves separate from the pagans. They kept the food and dietary laws as a powerful separator between the people of God and all of the other nations. Jews had been persecuted and killed upholding these laws and the honor of God’s people. Changing that mindset would not come easily. Perhaps Jesus had called them to include all people but weren’t these markers like circumcision and the food laws the very things that God had given his people to show them and the world that they were his people? Surely, if anyone wanted to join the Messiah’s family they would have to realize that it was still the family of God. They would still need to follow all of the laws and standards of being part of God’s people in order to number themselves among God’s family that was being formed in the Messiah.
It would take something big and something rather clear to help the apostles, and the entire Christian community, to accept the Gentiles fully into the family of God. If for no other reason, that is exactly why Luke will spend so much time on these dual visions of Cornelius and Peter. This was big. It was the final door that needed to be opened as God’s family became open once-and-forever to people of all nations. This would be difficult for the Jewish Christians to accept, but it would be equally big and encouraging news for Luke’s presumed audience of Theophilus and the other Romans around him.
Cornelius wasn’t just a Gentile. He was a Roman. He wasn’t just a Roman, he was a Roman soldier. He wasn’t just a Roman soldier, he was a centurion that was in charge of a hundred men. He didn’t live in just any city. He lived in Caesarea, a city that the Jews hated and called “the daughter of Edom”; it was a city within Israel but it served as the administration center for Rome in Palestine and boasted more Gentiles than Jews. There was much that was going against Cornelius in the minds of Jews and Jewish Christians alike. But there was also some things that would make him favorable in the eyes of those groups. He was a God-fearer, meaning he greatly respected much about the Jewish religion and observed certain aspects of it, but had not become a full proselyte or been circumcised and would still have been considered an unclean Gentile by most Jews and certainly not part of God’s family. But Cornelius was still a devout man who observed regular Jewish prayer and the consistent giving of alms.
During the regular Jewish afternoon prayer time Cornelius was visited by a divine messenger. Cornelius had been noticed by God as an authentic believer and had been chosen for a great task. The thrust of the message was that Cornelius should find Peter and bring him to Caesarea. What would happen once Peter got there would be directly from God. Of that Cornelius need not worry.
The next day we are told that Peter went up to the roof to pray, at the same time as trusted servants of Cornelius and a fellow devout soldier went to Joppa to find Peter. As Peter was praying, he had a vision. This vision was particularly appropriate because he was hungry and his vision involved food. In his heavenly vision, Peter saw something like a large sheet open up that contained all kinds of animals, both clean and unclean. The voice in the vision told Peter to eat but Peter was immediately horrified. As a devout member of the people of God he would never agree to eat such things. This would be unthinkable in Peter’s mind because in the very act of eating such things, he would be showing that he was not a member of God’s people. Following the Law, including the dietary restrictions was the uniform of the Jewish people that showed the pagan world that they were indeed God’s people. It was, in other words, the sign of their justification, a term that referred, at least in part, to being part of God’s people.
Peter did what Peter seemingly tended to do and blurted out the first thing that came to mind, for better or worse. He would not eat unclean food, divine voice or no divine voice, in a protest that bore similarities to Ezekiel’s in Ezekiel 4:14. How could God be commanding him to eat such things? Just to make it clear, the voice rebuked Peter for his objection and urged him not to call anything impure that God has made clean. The obvious implication was not that these things were always clean but that God had now made them clean.
The great issue of this vision that has been disagreed upon by Christians down through the centuries is whether the vision referred to the declaration that all foods were now clean for eating or whether the vision was allegorical and was referring to the coming inclusion of the Gentile people in the kingdom of God. The arguments generally seem to focus on the belief that it must refer to one or the other. It is true that Peter had heard Jesus basically declare all foods clean (Mk. 7:14-19) but it was perhaps not until this vision that he truly grasped the shocking point that Jesus had made (it is quite possible that this vision helped Peter come to the clear conclusion that Mark declared in Mk. 7:19). But there was an inextricable link between the dietary restrictions and the barrier between Jews and Gentiles (see Lev. 20:24-26). The food restrictions were designed to teach God’s people of the deep dangers of taking sin into their lives and binding themselves with sin. They would continue to learn that important lesson by remaining separate from the pagans and the food restrictions were one of the primary means of doing that.
Now that Christ had come, the Law, including the dietary restrictions were no longer necessary. The lesson had been taught and God’s family was now open to people of all nations, just as God had promised all along. In being told to accept all foods as permissible, Peter would inevitably realize that he was also being prepared to accept all human beings. One was connected with the other as Peter will soon learn. God had promised Abraham that he would one day have a family of all nations and one thing is for sure, God always keeps his promises.
The vision that Peter received was certainly jarring news for him but Peter was constantly seeking God’s will for the life of the believers so when he received it he was immediately willing to change lifelong practices. Are you equally in constant search of God’s will and open to new ground and new adventures? What might God be calling you to do today?