Story 46 – Peter and Cornelius
Based on Acts chapter 10 verses 1 to chapter 11 verse 18
In Caesarea, a Roman officer called Cornelius, a captain in the Italian Regiment, knelt in prayer. He and all his family feared God and tried to live good lives. He regularly gave to those in need and prayed to God. But today, as he knelt to pray at the usual time of three in the afternoon, suddenly, he saw a vision of an angel, sent from God. Filled with terror, Cornelius listened as the angel delivered his message!
‘Cornelius,’ the angel said.
Hardly able to breathe, Cornelius replied, ‘Yes, sir, what do you want?’
‘Your prayers and your gifts to the poor have been noticed by God! Now, send some men down to Joppa to find a man there called Simon who is also known as Peter. This man is staying with Simon the tanner who lives near the sea. When the men get there, tell them to ask Peter to come and visit you.’
No sooner had the angel gone than Cornelius was up on his feet rushing to find his servants. ‘Quick!’ he called to two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his personal attendants. ‘You must come and hear what’s just happened – it’s incredible!’ Then he told them about the angel and the message he’d been given and the precise instructions about who to ask for and where they’d find him. ‘Now, go and do what the angel said,’ Cornelius instructed, ‘and ask this Peter to come back here and tell us whatever it is God wants us to know.’
The three of them hurriedly got together all they’d need for the two day journey to Joppa and set off, not really knowing what to expect! (PAUSE)
The next day, as the three men approached Joppa and started to ask directions to Simon the tanner’s house down by the shore, Peter, without knowing anything about the people looking for him, went up onto the flat roof of the house to spend some time in prayer.
Now, it was about midday when Peter went up to the roof to pray, and he realised he was hungry! So, after asking for some food, Peter sat waiting for it to be prepared and fell into a trance. And, while in this trance, something started to happen. What appeared to be a very large sheet was lowered down from heaven by its four corners. And, as Peter looked inside the sheet, he saw that it was filled with all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds! And then, a voice spoke to him. ‘Peter,’ it said, ‘get up and kill and eat them!’
Peter couldn’t believe what he was hearing! The most important thing to a Jew was to remain ceremonially clean – to not mix or even associate with Gentiles (who are people who aren’t Jews) and especially not to eat animals that the Jewish law said were unclean (even though Jesus Himself had said that it wasn’t food that made a man unclean but his own evil thoughts and desires). So Peter replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! In all my life I haven’t eaten anything forbidden by our Jewish law!’
But then the voice spoke again, a note of rebuke in it, ‘If God says something’s clean, don’t call it unclean!’
Three times the vision was repeated and then the sheet was pulled up once again into heaven.
What on earth was all that about? As Peter sat there puzzling over what it all meant, the three men sent by Cornelius arrived at the gate of the house and asked if this was the place where Simon who was also known as Peter was staying. As they asked, and as Peter continued to try and understand this strange vision, the Holy Spirit spoke to him. ‘Three men have come looking for you,’ He said. ‘I have sent these men, so don’t hesitate to go with them.’
At that, Peter got up, went downstairs and found the three men. ‘I’m the man you’re looking for,’ he told them. ‘But what’s this all about? Why’ve you come looking for me?’
‘We’ve been sent by Cornelius, the Roman officer,’ they replied. ‘He is a righteous, God-fearing man who’s respected by all the Jews. And we’ve come looking for you because a holy angel told Cornelius to ask you to come to his house so that you could give him a message.’
Now what was Peter to do? It was too late to start their journey straight away and so these men needed a place to stay for the night. But these men weren’t Jews, they were Gentiles – even if God-fearing ones! And to mix with Gentiles would make him unclean! But he’d already started to realise that God’s ways were different from the normal Jewish ways, as he himself had seen with the Samaritans and by the fact that he was staying with a tanner who worked with dead animals! Jews thought these people where unclean but Peter had accepted the invitation to stay with Simon the tanner. However, the difference this time was that the people standing at the door weren’t Jewish in any way while the Samaritans were a mixture – part Jew you could say, although considered unclean by the Jews. As for Simon the tanner, he was still a Jew… But, Peter couldn’t ignore that the Holy Spirit had said that He’d sent these men to Peter! And God had just shown him the vision and told him not to call anything He’d made ‘unclean’. So Peter did something … well, unheard of for a Jew… he invited the men into the house to stay as his guests for the night. (PAUSE)
The next morning they set off for Caesarea. Six other Jewish disciples went with Peter and the three men Cornelius had sent, and they all arrived at Cornelius’ house later on the following day. But that had been enough time for Peter to start to understand what God had been saying to him – to see that the vision wasn’t really about animals but about people, people who would become followers of Jesus. He began to understand that maybe, perhaps, God was going to call not just Jews to become His Holy people. So far it had been only Jews and the half-Jew Samaritans who’d become disciples, but could it be that He was going to call Gentiles as well? People who had no Jewish background or ancestry at all?
When they arrived, Peter found Cornelius waiting for him, together with all his relatives and close friends. And then Peter did something he’d never done before – he entered the house of a Gentile. But no sooner had he done so than Cornelius fell to the floor at his feet to worship him!
‘Get up!’ Peter said, grabbing Cornelius by the arm and hastily pulling him back to his feet. ‘I’m just a human being like you!’ So Cornelius got up and they went in to find a crowd of people waiting for them.
When he saw the crowd, Peter said, ‘You all know it’s against the Jewish law for me to come into a Gentile home like this. But God has shown me that I should never think of anyone as unclean or impure. So, when I was sent for, I came without raising any objections. Now, please will you tell me why you sent for me?’ So Cornelius told Peter all that had happened four days ago when he’d seen the vision of the angel and about the message he’d been given.
Then Peter replied, ‘I can see very clearly that God hasn’t got favourites. In every nation He accepts those who fear Him and do what’s right. You will have heard about the Good News for the Jewish people that there is peace with God through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all. And you know all that’s happened beginning in Galilee after John the Baptist began preaching and how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went around doing good and healing all those who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him.’
‘Well, we, His apostles, are witnesses of all He did throughout Israel and in Jerusalem. How they put Him to death on a tree, how God raised Him to life on the third day after His death and allowed Him to be seen, not by everyone, but by witnesses that God had already chosen. We were those who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach everywhere and testify that Jesus is the One God’s chosen to be judge of all – both the living and the dead. He’s the One all the prophets spoke about, saying that everyone who believes in Him will have their sins forgiven through His name.’
While Peter was still speaking to them, the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone who heard the message. The Jewish believers couldn’t believe what was happening – that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on those who weren’t Jews! But it was true, as they heard these Gentiles speaking in tongues and praising God just like they’d done on the day of Pentecost!
Peter looked around at the wonderful sight before him and, seeing that God had moved to save and anoint these Gentiles with the Holy Spirit and so bring them into church, he said, ‘Can anyone object to these people being baptised now that they’ve received the Holy Spirit in just the same way we did?’ Without waiting for a reply he ordered that they should all be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. And afterwards, to prove that Peter really had understood that salvation was for everyone, not just Jews, and that he must not call anyone unclean, when Cornelius asked him to stay with them, Peter happily stayed in that Gentile household for several days. (PAUSE)
Of course, the news of what’d happened spread like wildfire! And what Peter had done – actually inviting Gentiles into a house as his guests and then, even worse, going into the house of a Gentile – was reported to the other believers in Judea and, when he arrived back in Jerusalem, some of the Jewish believers criticised his behaviour. ‘You actually went into the home of Gentiles and even shared a meal with them!’ they protested.
So Peter told them exactly what’d happened to him and how it’d all come to pass. ‘I was in Joppa and, one day as I was praying, I went into a trance and saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. When I looked inside the sheet, it was full of all sorts of small animals, wild animals, reptiles and birds that we aren’t allowed to eat! Then, I heard a voice speaking to me. It said, ‘Peter, get up; kill and eat!’’
‘I was horrified! So I replied, ‘Never, Lord! I’ve never eaten anything forbidden by the Jewish law!’’
‘But the voice from heaven replied to me, ‘If God says something’s clean, don’t call it unclean!’ This happened three times before the sheet was taken back up into heaven. Just then, three men arrived at the house. As they arrived, the Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry about them being Gentiles. These six brothers came with me and we soon arrived at the home of the man who’d sent for us. Well, he told us how an angel had appeared to him and told him to send messengers to Joppa to find me, saying, ‘He will tell you how you and all your household will be saved!’’
‘So I began telling them the Good News but, as I was telling them, the Holy Spirit fell on them just like He fell on us at the beginning. It was at this point that I thought about the Lord’s words when He said, ‘John baptised with water, but you’re going to baptise with the Holy Spirit.’ Anyway, since God had given these Gentiles the same gift He gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to argue about it?’
When they heard all that Peter had to say, there were no more objections as all their questions were answered. In fact, their concern turned to worship and praise of God as they said, ‘Wow, God’s even given the Gentiles the privilege of turning from their sins and receiving eternal life.’