This page is a verse by verse study of Acts 10:1-23, about two visions, one experienced by the good man Cornelius, and the other by the apostle Peter. God prepares these two men, a Gentile and a Jew, to meet each other.
Cornelius the Gentile’s Vision
¶ "In Caesarea, there was a man named Cornelius, who was a centurion of the the Italian Battalion as it was known. Cornelius was a devout man, who feared God with all his household. He gave generous gifts to the needy among the people, and he prayed to God often."(Acts 10:1-2).
The Goodness of Cornelius
Cornelius was a centurion(Acts 10:1). This means he was the captain of around 80 soldiers in the Roman army. His responsibility was to keep the peace and to enforce the law.
Cornelius was a devout man and one who feared God(Acts 10:2). From the story, we gather that he was a Gentile. However certain Gentiles were God-fearers, meaning that they rejected pagan religion and worshipped the true God.
His household also joined him in his devotion to God (Acts 10:2). His wife, children, and servants shared his godliness, and there were no idols in his house.
Cornelius gave many alms to the Jewish people. He was generous in charitable gifts to the poor, and he did not distribute his alms with partiality or prejudice.
He prayed to God continually (Acts 10:2). Cornelius gave thanks to God and sought help from God. He was seeking God always in his prayers. His prayers and alms "ascended as a memorial before God"(Acts 10:4).
Cornelius was a just man (Acts 10:22). He was not a man who thought evil, spoke evil, or did evil. He was a righteous man.
He had a good reputation"well spoken of by the entire nation"(Acts 10:22).
He received a vision from an angel of God (Acts 10:22, cf 10:3-4). That's a rare privilege.
Cornelius and his household were baptized with the Holy Spirit, just as the apostles had been on the day of Pentecost! (Acts 10:44-45, 11:15).
A righteous man. The more you think about this description of Cornelius, the more you realise how good he was. Peter said, "In every nation God welcomes the man who fears God and does what is right"(Acts 10:34-35). God did not despise the goodness of Cornelius. God did not look upon his righteousness as filthy rags. God noticed, honoured, and rewarded Cornelius for his goodworks.
¶ "At about three o'clock in the afternoon, Cornelius saw a clear vision of an angel of God. The angel came to him, and said, “Cornelius!” Cornelius was frightened, but he looked intently at the angel and asked, “What do you want with me, Lord?” The angel replied, “Your prayers and your gifts to the needy have gone up to heaven for a memorial before God. Now I want you to send men to Joppa, and call for Simon who is also called Peter. He lodges with another Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. Peter will tell you what you should do” "(Acts 10:3-6).
Send for Simon Peter. Cornelius, for all his righteousness, needed to have faith in Jesus Christ. So God sets about organizing for Peter to go to Cornelius and preach the gospel to him.
What do you want, Lord? Cornelius was surprised and frightened by the angel’s appearance, but his response was not in any way confused. "What is it Lord?" he asked (Acts 10:4). That is to say, “What is it Lord, that you wish me to do?” Cornelius knew that he was before a superior, and Cornelius was ready to obey orders.
¶ "When the angel who spoke to Cornelius had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him constantly. Having explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. Next day, while they were on their journey and nearing the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray. It was about noon."(Acts 10:7-9).
Two prayerful men. Cornelius’s prayers were effectual, and his obedience was prompt. However he was not the only one who prayed often to God and who was consequently caught up in God’s plan and all-embracing providence. Peter retires to the roof garden to pray, and his prayer will also bring a vision.
Peter the Apostle’s Vision
¶ "On the housetop, Peter became hungry and desired to eat, but while a meal was being prepared, a trance came upon him. He saw heaven opened and an object descending toward him. It was like a great sheet let down to the earth by four corners. Inside it there were all kinds of four-footed beasts of the earth. There were wild animals, reptiles, and birds of the sky. A voice came to him, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “No way Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” A voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean.” This happened three times, then the sheet was drawn back up into heaven."(Acts 10:10-16).
Clean or unclean? Under Jewish law, many animals were declared unclean and were forbidden as food (eg Leviticus 11). Jesus Christ taught that food goes into the stomach and passes through the body and out into the toilet, thus taking away what is bad. Food therefore cannot defile a person because it is purified by this process (Mark 7:18-20). Jesus taught Paul that all foods are clean (Romans 14:14, Colossians 2:16-17). Like Peter, people want to argue on this point, but God’s statement to Peter is plain: the creatures in the sheet which Peter recognized as unclean had now been made clean. "What God has cleansed, do not call unholy"(Acts 10:12-15). Why do people argue when this passage, clearly in context, makes it undeniable that creatures once forbidden by Moses are now permitted by Christ?
The real lesson. God is not merely trying to change Peter’s belief about food, but much more importantly his beliefs about people. Peter later says, “It is thought unlawful for a Jewish man to visit or associate with one of another nation. But God has shown me that I shouldn't call any man unholy or unclean.” (Acts 10:28-29). That was the real lesson of the vision. The bag of creatures symbolized the many nations of human beings. God shuns nobody who fears him and does what is right. So now Peter has learned that he should associate with Gentiles not just with Jews. God loves the whole wide world (John 3:16, 1John 2:2).
¶ "Peter was feeling very disturbed in his spirit about the meaning of this vision he'd just seen. At this moment, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate. They called out and asked whether Simon Peter, was lodging there. While Peter was still pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men seek you. Arise, go down, and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.” "(Acts 10:17-20).
The ordinary alongside the miraculous. God is sending angels and visions and the voice of his Spirit. At the same time, men are doing things in the ordinary manner, travelling to Joppa, finding the house, calling at the gate. The person who furthers God’s cause in the ordinary way is no less respectable and important than the person moved by signs and wonders.
¶ "Peter went down to the men, and said, “Behold, I am he whom you seek. Why have you come?” They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous man and one who fears God, and well spoken of by all the nation of the Jews, was directed by a holy angel to invite you to his house, and to listen to what you say.” So Peter invited the men inside and gave them lodging for the night. Next day Peter arose and set out with them for Caesarea. Some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him."(Acts 10:21-23).
God uses people. Since God sent an angel to Cornelius, why didn't the angel preach the gospel to Cornelius and instruct him what to do? Why go to all the trouble and inconvenience of sending men to Joppa to fetch Peter? God gave the great commission to human beings (Mark 16:14-16). In Cornelius’s case, God is taking special action, because he has a point to make. However he still leaves it up to mere mortals to do the preaching. We human beings are allowed the dignity of having an essential role in the great plan of God to save us. We are not merely the souls being saved; we participate in the saving of souls.