- Main Text: Acts 10:1-17, 34-48
- Accompanying text: Matthew 9:36-37
What this passage means to us
Matthew’s closing remarks, in which Christ commissioned the eleven to go to all nations and to baptise and teach them, links directly to Acts 10. Up until then the apostles went mainly to the Jews and to Jewish proselytes. Peter had given a fiery sermon at Pentecost after Christ’s ascension, and he seems to go from strength to strength in his evangelism among his own people. But “the Christian gospel is meant for everyone, Jew and Gentile, educated and barbarian, male and female, bond and free. There was no dispute about that in the earliest church, even though there was much soul-searching about the extent to which non-Jewish converts should conform to ritual, the Law and the external marks of Israel” . Peter’s soul-searching in this regard began with a vision about eating food that Jews refused to eat to show that they were a holy and separate people. “The expansion of the gospel faced a significant stumbling block: the Jewish food laws forbade Jews to eat with Gentiles” . How could believers preach the relational gospel of grace to people with whom they didn’t associate or to whom they did not talk? There is a lesson here for us — do we block the message of Jesus by refusing to associate with those whom we regard as unclean for whatever reason?
It seems that Peter remembered the words of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20. “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all…All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name’” (Acts 10:34-36, 43).
The centurion Cornelius was part of a group of people that were both attracted to and hesitant of Judaism, just like some may be today in regard to Christianity. He was a ‘god-fearer’ — “people impressed enough with Judaism to hang out at the synagogue, but not quite impressed enough to become full Jews and get cut and keep the kosher laws and so on…this people-group (was) a fertile ground for mission” .
The baptism of Cornelius was of far-reaching importance. He was not the first Gentile to be baptised. The Ethiopian eunuch was first, but was he a proselyte on the way back from observing Pentecost? Also, much heated argument has taken place about the baptism of Cornelius and his household — did this include children and people who had not really repented? We don’t know. What we do know is that this an inclusive event that would change the course of Christian history. It’s worthwhile remembering the importance of the head of the household in first century society. Typically, if the head of the household changed his religious loyalties, chances are the rest of the household would follow. “The household…was a complex institution. Its undisputed head was the father, and he enjoyed sweeping powers over the members of his family…apart from his own kith and kin, the household would include the slaves…also, the freedmen…if the father were converted first…then he would bring over the whole family with him. This is what happened in the case of Cornelius…He gathered together his blood relatives, his slaves and his friends, and together they heard the preaching of Peter” . “Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: ‘You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection’” (Acts 10:27-29).
The passage illustrates how the Holy Spirit might prompt us unexpectedly at times of prayer. Cornelius “and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 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!’ Cornelius stared at him in fear. ‘What is it, Lord?’ he asked” (Acts 10: 2-4). Also, “About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds” (Acts 10:9-13).
Context and Story-line
After the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip the evangelist went to preach in previously Philistine areas. After that Saul (later Paul) is converted on the road to Damascus, and begins to preach Christ crucified and resurrected, but his work is received with some suspicion by the church in the Jerusalem. In the meantime, Peter is heading for Jerusalem when he receives his vision and meets Cornelius.
After the baptism of Cornelius the Jerusalem councils meets to discuss and approve his conversion. It was a unanimous decision of the council. When, however, Paul made a practice of doing what Peter had done in baptizing and receiving a Gentile, the controversy arose again and became much more heated…
- 1 Timothy 5:21
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Revised edition from 1970 published in UK: Kingsway, 2003). 161.
- David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible (UK: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015). 864.
- Conrad Gempf, How to like Paul again: the apostle you never knew (UK: Authentic Media Limited, 2013). 46.