A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 10:1-8. Peter is sent for by Cornelius.
Peter has responded boldly to the challenges of sickness and death; how will he respond to the challenge of racial and religious discrimination? Luke may be hinting at his comparative openness by ending the story of Aeneas and Tabitha with the information that ‘Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon’ (9:43). For, since tanners worked with dead animals, in order to convert their skin into leather, they were regarded as ceremonially unclean. But Peter disregarded this, which ‘seems to show that [he] was already in a state of mind which would fit him for the further revelation of the next chapter, and for the instructions to go and baptize the Gentile Cornelius’.
At all events, we who now read Acts 10 remember that Jesus had given Peter ‘the keys of the kingdom’, although it is Matthew who tells us this not Luke (Mt.16:19). And we have already watched him use these keys effectively, opening the kingdom to Jews on the Day of Pentecost and then to Samaritans soon afterwards. Now he is to use them again to open the kingdom to Gentiles; by evangelizing and baptizing Cornelius, the first Gentile convert (cf. Acts 15:7).
Cornelius was stationed at Caesarea, a garrison city named after Augustus Caesar, the administrative capital of the province of Judea, boasting a splendid harbour built by Herod the Great. Luke introduces him as *a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment* (1). ‘Regiment translates *speira*, usually ‘cohort’, which consisted of six ‘centuries’ (100 men), each under the command of a ‘centurion’. Ten cohorts made up a legion. So a centurion corresponded approximately to a ‘captain’ or ‘company commander’ in our day.
In addition, he seems to have been an exemplary *Pater familias*, for *he and all his family* were *devout*, their godliness being expressed both in generosity to the needy (JB, ‘to Jewish causes’) and in regular prayer to God (2). Whether ‘God-fearing’ is to be understood in a general sense that Cornelius was religious (as in verse 35) or in the more technical sense that he had become ‘a God-fearer’ (eg. 13:16, 26), ‘a proselyte of the gate’, is disputed. If the latter is correct, it means that he had accepted the monotheism and ethical standards of the Jews, and attended synagogue services, but had not become a full proselyte and been circumcised. So, although later (22) he is described as ‘respected by all the Jewish people’, he was still a Gentile, an outsider, excluded from God’s covenant with Israel.
It is difficult for us to grasp the impassable gulf which yawned in those days between the Jews on the one hand and the Gentiles (including even ‘God-fearers’) on the other. Not that the Old Testament itself countenanced such a divide. On the contrary, alongside its oracles against the hostile nations, it affirmed that God had a purpose for them. By choosing and blessing one family, he intended to bless all the families of the earth (Gn. 12:1-4). So psalmists and prophets foretold the day when God’s Messiah would inherit the nations, the Lord’s servant would be their light, all nations would ‘flow’ to the Lord’s house, and God would pour out his Spirit on all mankind (Ps. 2:7-8; 22:27-28; Is. 2:1ff; 42:6; 49:6; Joel 2:28ff). The tragedy was that Israel twisted the doctrine of election into one of favouritism, became filled with racial pride and hatred, despised Gentiles as ‘dogs’, and developed traditions which kept them apart. No orthodox Jew would ever enter the home of a Gentile, even a God-fearer, or invite such into his home (see verse 28). On the contrary, ‘all familiar intercourse with Gentiles was forbidden’ and ‘no pious Jew would of course have sat down at the table of a Gentile’.
This then was the entrenched prejudice which had to be overcome before Gentiles could be admitted into the Christian community on equal terms with the Jews, and before the church could become a truly multi-racial, multi-cultured society. We saw in Acts 8 the special steps God took to prevent the perpetuation of the Jewish-Samaritan schism in the church; how would he prevent a Jewish-Gentile schism? Luke regards this episode as being so important that he narrates it twice, first in his own words (Acts 10), and then in Peter’s when the latter explained to the Jerusalem church what had happened (11:1-18).
It is first made clear that Peter is to be God’s instrument in this development, for Cornelius was instructed to send for him. *One day at about three in the afternoon*, which Luke has already identified as a time of prayer among Jews (3:1), *he had a vision* in which *he distinctly saw* an angel who called him by name (3). In response to his terrified question, the angel told him that his *prayers and gifts to the poor* had *come up as a memorial offering before God* (4), so that he had taken note of them, and that he must *send men to Joppa*, about thirty-two miles along the coast to the south, to fetch Simon Peter who was staying *by the sea* with his namesake, Simon the tanner (5-6). It was at Joppa, centuries previously, that the disobedient prophet Jonah had boarded a ship in his foolish attempt to run away from God. (Jon.1:13). But Cornelius the centurion, who was himself used to giving commands, immediately obeyed this one, sending two servants and one soldier to Joppa (7-8). The angel did not preach the gospel to the centurion; that privilege was to be entrusted to the apostle Peter.
This initial incident set the stage for what followed. For the primary question was how God would deal with Peter. How would he succeed in breaking down Peter’s deep-seated racial intolerance? The principal subject of this chapter is not so much the conversion of Cornelius as the conversion of Peter.
Tomorrow: Acts 10:9-23. 3). Peter receives a vision.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.