Chapters 10 and 11 in today’s reading marks a turning point in the Book of Acts. Those who were scattered by persecution from Jerusalem had been preaching the gospel only to Jews. But at this point they began to overcome their prejudices and carry the message of Christ to the Gentiles. A centurion was the highest ranking non commissioned officers the Roman army, equivalent to today’s sergeant. Luke had often described centurions in favorable terms. It was important for Luke to show that Christianity was not hostile to Roman officials or institutions and could, like Judaism, be permitted in the Roman empire. Cornelius was a Gentile of Italian descent and he and his family were God fearers, much like the Ethiopian eunuch. And Caesarea was about 30 miles north of Joppa in the Mediterranean coast. This was the capital of Judea under the Roman procurators. In the Book of Acts visions are not chance coincidences, but expressions of God’s saving work, providing divine direction and encouragement. Cornelius experienced his vision about 3:00 in the afternoon, a traditional Jewish time of prayer. It was also the hour of the evening incense. The Angel who arrived acknowledged that God had received the prayers and offerings of Cornelius and he told Cornelius to call for a man named Simon Peter who would tell them all about the risen Christ. While Cornelius was having his vision Peter was having one as well, except Peter saw his three times. Cornelius’s desire was to be pleasing to God and the fact that he readily obeyed the Angel is proof of that. With that kind of attitude, there was no question that Cornelius was open to receiving the gospel message.
We can look back to Leviticus 11 to find the list of clean and unclean animals. While Peter’s host was preparing the noon meal Peter fell into a trance during which he was commanded to kill and eat all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds. The problem was that the animals were mixed, both clean and unclean together. Jews were taught from childhood never touch or eat anything that isn’t clean, but Peter was now being commanded to do just that. Three times God corrected Peter’s resistance with the words “what God has cleansed you must not call common.” Food May have been Peter’s first consideration, but Peter would soon find out a deeper meaning. The vision was a sign from heaven that Jews were no longer to call Gentiles unclean. From that point on they would be on equal footing with the Father. God was breaking down Peter’s prejudices. In other words, Peter should not hesitate to enter or even eat in the home of a Gentile because God had accepted Gentiles and cleansed them. When Peter arrived, Cornelius tried to worship him but Peter was horrified. He was a man just like Cornelius. It is possible however that this was a show of obeisance to a high ranking person. Many people had been invited to come to Cornelius’s house to hear Peter and perhaps worship and break bread. Once everyone was settled, Cornelius then retold the story of how Peter came to be at his house.
Peter began by saying that God doesn’t play favorites. The good news of the gospel is not just for a certain population. In every nation, every kind of person is welcome into the kingdom of God. This is exactly what Jesus had told the apostles. Peter repeatedly underscored the importance of the apostolic witness to the message of the good news. The apostles ate and drank with Jesus and they were eyewitnesses of His resurrection. That meant they could attest that He had conquered death. The original apostles were chosen in advance to be His witnesses but gradually others like Paul and Barnabas carried on this powerful teaching in the name of Jesus. Based on what the apostles had seen and heard, they could proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the One all the prophets testified about. The whole plan of the scriptures is completely centered in Jesus Christ. The major point of the apostles message was that everyone who believes in Jesus will have their sins forgiven through His name. On the Day of Pentecost Peter told the assembly that if they would repent, turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. As Cornelius and his household listened to Peter’s message the Holy Spirit fell upon them and they were baptized. They received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews had on the day of Pentecost. Clearly God was not playing favorites. This event parallels the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem and marks the spread of the Holy Spirit’s power to Gentiles. Cornelius asked Peter to stay for a few days, no doubt because he felt they all needed more instruction in the way of the Lord.
The Jews were not fond of the Gentiles and in some rabbinical writings the Gentiles were considered to have been created by God specifically for kindling the fires of hell. They were called dogs and viewed as unclean. Jews traditionally kept themselves separate and did not eat or associate socially with Gentiles. So, when the Jewish believers in Jerusalem learned that the Gentiles had received the Word of God, they criticized Peter’s unconventional actions and wanted an explanation, which Peter provided. Peter told them about his vision and that of Cornelius, explaining that the whole development was the result of God’s initiative. Peter had eaten with Gentiles because God had made it clear that he should. Peter had then observed the Holy Spirit’s definite action of coming upon the Gentiles, and he realized that they were being accepted and blessed by God just as Jewish believers had been. Peter was submitting to God’s will in admitting Gentiles to the church. Peter’s logical, straightforward explanation convinced those who had objected. They recognized God’s hand at work in the conversion of the Gentiles and their receiving eternal life. However, issues relating to the inclusion of Gentiles would soon provoke a major crisis. The persecution that followed Stephen’s death forced believers into other areas and they traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Antioch of Syria was a thriving cosmopolitan city, the third largest in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. Antioch was of central importance in the spread of the Christian message to the Gentile world.
The outreach effort on the part of Jewish believers, from Cyprus to Cyrene was the first systematic attempt to preach to Gentiles about the Lord Jesus Christ. And as before in the house of Cornelius, Gentiles turned to the Lord in considerable numbers. The explosion of Christian faith into the Gentile world had to remain in harmony with the church in Jerusalem. So, the church sent Barnabas to Antioch to oversee developments there. He could see that God’s blessing was on what was happening, so he endorsed it with joy. Saul had gone to Tarsus for a time, presumably to rest and study something that would equip him for the journey that lay ahead of him. Barnabas recognized the special gifts that Saul possessed for preaching and teaching. His assessment was wise and it resulted in a fruitful team ministry in Antioch. It was in Antioch that the believers were first called Christians and it is quite possible that this was intended to be a term of derision.
The upshot of Agasbus’s prophecy was that the believers in Antioch decided to make a contribution to the Jewish believers, the brothers and sisters in Judea. The believers gave as generously as they could and committed the responsibility for this financial aid to leaders they trusted, namely to Barnabas and his fellow worker Saul. This unified love and support of Christians for one another was a tangible demonstration of the difference Christ had made in their lives. Paul describes this in his letter to the Galatians . And in verse 30 we see the first reference to elders as officers of the Christian church.
Jesus had clearly predicted persecution and hardship for His followers. For the first time since Jesus’ death Roman authorities took violent action against the church. James the brother of John was one of the first called to be a disciple, and he was one of the first Christians to be martyred for his faith. King Herod Agrippa attacked the church, a move that’s was found to be politically helpful with the Jewish people. This is the same Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded. The letter of James, the brother of Jesus, was probably written after the persecution, to the scattered Christians. Herod had Peter arrested. He was guarded by four squads of soldiers, making it humanly impossible for the apostle to escape. However, God was in charge and nothing is too hard for God. The church prayed very earnestly and God answered those prayers. Through an Angel, God led Peter out of the jail, reunited him with his praying friends, and sent him out to Caesarea to carry on the work of spreading the Good News. The message advanced despite determined opposition. It seems that the home of Mary, mother of John Mark was a gathering place for believers in Jerusalem. John Mark later became a missionary colleague of Barnabas and Saul. Rhoda was so surprised when Peter appeared that she left him standing at the closed door. Both she and the other believers were amazed by God’s answer to their prayers. When Peter couldn’t be found after a careful search, Herod interrogated the guards and then put them to death. But Herod met his own painful end as a divine judgement on his conceit when he accepted the people’s worship. The first century Jewish historian Josephus records the death of Herod Agrippa I in great detail. Herod’s demise from a terrible illness contrasts with the growth of the Christian church and the unhindered message of Good News.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W