All of us are affected by what’s around us. Ideas, beliefs, people, environment – all these, and other things besides, can shape our behaviour. But if we ask what leads to all the wrong we do, then the core of the answer lies inside. Jesus pointed to the human heart as the source of evil (Mt 15:19-20). However, he not only identified the problem but offered a solution too: the forgiveness of our sins (Mt 9:6) and the rebirth of our lives by the power of God (Jo 1:12,13). In Acts 10 the apostle Peter accepts one very important implication of this salvation which Jesus has brought.
Jesus has already altered Peter’s thinking. He grew up in a society which lived under many rules that were supposed to keep it fit for God. Walking with Jesus, however, exposed Peter to the reality that even the finest law-keepers in Israel were still unclean due to their hearts (eg Mt 23:25, 26). But Peter also watched Jesus rescue folk from this, even those his society had written off as hopeless law-breakers (Mt 21:31). And the Lord has just challenged Peter to think again about cleanness with a peculiar, triple vision of animals (Ac 10:9-16). So now he is ready to face his toughest issue yet: can Gentiles (non-Jews) also be made clean for God’s kingdom by Jesus?
Messengers come from a Roman centurion (v17). This man is part of the pagan occupying force which controls Israel; he is an enemy. Yet he wants to contact Peter (v18) and the Holy Spirit confirms for the apostle that he’s right to meet the messengers (v19,20). So he descends to them and hears of Cornelius: a God-fearer who keeps those Jewish laws which apply to Gentiles in Israel (v21,22). Cornelius has been contacted by an angel and told to find Peter. So Peter knows for sure that he must respond to this call. Therefore, after providing lodging for the night, he goes with the men, and some local Christian friends, to meet the Roman soldier. Why take others? Well, apart from the company, it’s vital that witnesses confirm all that takes place is from God. Peter will need this when he reports to Jerusalem. But, also, Luke includes it because it supports his reason for writing Luke and Acts, namely: to confirm that all that’s happening amongst Christians is true to the plans of God (Lk 1:1-4). Many Jews decried that when they saw Gentiles converted; but Luke could show God was in it. Churches must constantly test themselves not by public opinion nor preference but by how the Lord has, in his word, told us to live.
On his arrival in the very militaristic town of Caesaria, Peter is met with a home stuffed full of Gentiles (v24). It is, of course, a great blessing when the Lord moves many at once to hear his word in this way and respond to it (v44). However, this is still a nervous meeting for Peter and its awkwardness is only made worse when Cornelius falls before him (v25). Peter may well be wondering how his fellow Jews will react to this act of idolatry! And, meanwhile, the tough, army captain is clearly unsure about how to treat Peter. But the confusion and uncertainty are not signs of a mistake. Rather, this is the way the Lord often takes us forward in his ways: by putting us into tricky situations where we practise what he has taught us. So Peter calls Cornelius back to his feet (v26), before explaining how the Lord has been changing his mind (v27,28). Though once he would have kept away from a Gentile home, now is happy to visit (v29). In reply, Cornelius tells his side of the story (v30-33) and it becomes plain to Peter that God is truly at work (v34,35).
The tale here is one which shows the brilliance of the Lord. He is bringing together very different people, to form one body in him (Ep 2:11-22). But he does so not simply by issuing commands. Rather he works like a sculptor, chiselling carefully to create something of beauty. Using both words and circumstances, the Lord wisely builds his church of all kinds of people. He continues to work the same way today, bringing us into the most suitable situations to put his teaching into practice. Not that we always find it easy. Combining sinful people, with real differences, into a loving community makes for nervous and difficult conversations at times. Each steps requires a peaceable spirit and a humble willingness to forgo personal preferences, as we see in Peter. But when we are willing to follow the Lord in this way, we will discover something very precious.